Tara Quick is frustrated.
The paraprofessional in her is frustrated that there’s no mask mandate at Alliance Public Schools. The cheer coach in her is dissatisfied that she and her entire team are quarantined and will miss homecoming week.
The mother and grandmother in her is disheartened by the negative reaction by certain members of the school board, especially when Board Member Josh Freiberger referred to certain guidelines put in place as “retarded” before school started. Board President Tim Kollars corrected Freiberg’s wording with “disingenuous.”
Quick is disappointed.
On Sept. 19, Alliance High School, located in an 8,000-person town in the Nebraska panhandle, canceled its football game due to several football players being quarantined, according to an article from the Gering Courier. At the time, the high school had 67 students and staff in quarantine, contributing to a total of 94 quarantines in Alliance Public Schools and five positive cases throughout the district, as stated in the same article.
Quick has coached for Alliance for 12 years and she’s spent eight of those years working as a special education paraprofessional for the Alliance Middle School. In a Facebook post after the decision was made to cancel the game, Quick expressed her confusion and what to her seems like a simple solution.
“I think masks would help tremendously,” Quick said. “I think it would help keep our kids in the school, which I think everybody wants.”
Alliance High School Principal George Clear declined to comment on the situation and Alliance Public School Superintendent Troy Unzicker did not reply to interview requests.
As of Sept. 30, there are four positive cases and 121 students or staff in quarantine, based on the district’s dashboard which is updated each evening.
A positive case at Alliance is allowed to be readmitted after ten days of quarantine, 24 hours with no fever and improved symptoms, according to Alliance’s COVID-19 response from the Panhandle Public Health District. An asymptomatic case can return based on those stipulations or if an alternative diagnosis has been made. If a staff member or student were to test negative but they still have symptoms, then they would be required to stay home for 24 hours until they are fever free and their respiratory symptoms have improved.
Quick and her squad are now a part of those numbers. The team learned of the positive case on Sept. 26 and will be quarantining until Oct. 5, which means it will miss all of homecoming week, making the game on Oct. 2 against Scottsbluff the second game the team has missed due to COVID-19.
Quick said the cheer team is a huge part of the Alliance homecoming tradition and, for a few of her cheerleaders, it would have been their last.
“You know it’s heartbreaking,” Quick said. “It’s sad for us as coaches to see them put in all the hard work and then for nothing, you know? It’s heartbreaking, especially for seniors.”
This is just one example of what many school districts in Nebraska are coping with two months into the school year. Just after Alliance cancelled its game on Sept. 19, Gov. Pete Ricketts spoke at a press conference on Sept. 21 in regard to students, teachers and staff members wearing masks in the classroom.
“If either party is unmasked, then they are going to have to quarantine,” Ricketts said.
The schools, local health departments and Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines determine who should or should not be quarantined if exposed to a positive COVID-19 case, according to the CDC’s website.
After Labor Day weekend, about a month after school began in north central Nebraska, 40 Valentine Elementary School students were put in quarantine due to exposure to COVID-19, according to Valentine Community Schools Superintendent Mike Halley. The Valentine High School football team has also missed four out of the first five weeks of their football season due to COVID-related issues.
Prior to the school year, Halley, in his first year as superintendent, said they worked toward ensuring students would be able to be physically in class. The plan that the administration created was based on a survey made by the Nebraska School Board Association that was sent out to the parents of Valentine Community Schools students.
The survey responses essentially said that parents wanted administration to do whatever it takes to keep students in in-person classes, but they didn’t think that masks were necessary. The administration created a plan that had four different color areas signifying the level of COVID-19 cases within the district. The four colors are green being business as usual, yellow and orange are more cautious and red being an extreme situation.
Despite their best efforts, Halley said it had gotten to a point where the dial turned to yellow and easily could have turned to orange quickly. A mask mandate suddenly became a part of the conversation for the administration.
“You know, it took us too long to figure it out,” Halley said. “But we finally did figure out.”
The culmination of these situations and at least 100 students quarantining because of four incidents caused the administration to start discussing masks and it ultimately made the decision to require masks starting on Sept. 21, Halley said. The announcement was made on Sept. 17 in a letter from Halley and the administration.
“We felt like the best thing to do for our kids in our community was to require the masks so that we could keep them here,” Halley said. “We’re trying to do everything we can and we want to keep the community healthy, too.”
The district has had a total of six positive cases as of Sept. 30, Halley said.
Wynot Public Schools in northeast Nebraska has required masks for all students while walking in the halls or using common areas since the beginning of the school year. After one positive case at the high school, seventh through 12th graders started online learning after Sept. 23 and will continue with in-person classes on Oct. 6.
Wynot Principal Grant Torpin said that because of the positive student’s participation in large sub-groups in the school, such as band, it would cause the quarantine of about 70 percent of the high school alone. Thus, a quarantine for seventh through 12th grades was established.
When the students return on Oct. 6, they will be required to wear masks at all times of the day, except for lunch time where the schools will have a social distancing set up. The elementary and early middle school has already begun wearing masks full-time as they are still in the building.
Torpin reports that the transition to online learning has been smoother than last spring and that the students have been receptive.
“I think all the schools are in a little bit of a better position, having been forced to do that in the spring when COVID first started up,” Torpin said.
While Ashland-Greenwood Public Schools in southeastern Nebraska does not have a mask requirement, math support teacher Jenny Washburn said almost all students at the elementary school wear masks. According to Ashland-Greenwood Superintendent Jason Libal, the same goes for the middle school and the high school.
Libal said he attributes the students’ action to the day-to-day education on why masks are important and the experiences from the previous school year. He explained that the students know that a level of normalcy can be maintained by wearing masks so they can keep going to school and participating in their extra curriculars.
“In a smaller school district like ours, our kids kind of participate in multiple things, and that can tend to be pretty important to those kids,” Libal said. “If you want to keep your marching band going or if you want to keep softball going or FBLA, we want to keep those activities going, it’s important that we mask up.”
Quick wishes this were the case in Alliance so that she and her team could be at the homecoming festivities. As she sits in quarantine, she is once again frustrated. Quick said she understands that Unzicker, the superintendent, is trying his best.
But what she doesn’t understand is the school board. Quick feels that it was a careless decision that is putting herself, her fellow teachers, her team and other students at risk. She said that what is most concerning is that they have made their no-mask decision not with the community in mind, but rather based on their own political beliefs.
“I feel like some of our school board members are voting personally instead of voting for what’s best for our community and our students,” Quick said.
Quick is worried. She’s concerned not only for herself, but also for everyone around her. And despite Alliance being a small town, she said she feels the disease slowly closing in.
“I think a lot of people in Alliance thought we’re okay,” Quick said. “We live in a small community, a small town. It’s not going to hit us, we’re all going to be fine. And all of a sudden it’s coming, I think it’s coming.”