Omaha area teacher unions call for city-wide mask mandates across metro

(Omaha, NE) -- As Douglas County reports its highest single-day COVID case count since the start of the pandemic, Omaha-area teachers unions are calling on local leaders to issue city-wide mask mandates.

On Thursday, the presidents of six local teachers unions sent a letter to the City Councils of Omaha, Bellevue, La Vista, Papillion and Ralston, encouraging them to issue mask requirements as COVID-19 cases continue to increase. Over 15-hundred new positive cases were reported in Douglas County on Thursday, a new one-day record since the pandemic began in March 2020.

The letter was sent from Andrew Bowen, president of Bellevue Education Association; Tim Royers, president of the Millard Education Association; Robert Miller, president of the Omaha Education Association; Jared Wagenknecht, president of the Papillion-La Vista Education Association; Jane Leadabrand, president of the Ralston Education Association; and Teresa Matthews, president of the Westside Education Association.

You can read the full letter below:

As presidents of the Metro area local education associations, we represent the thousands of educators who are working hard every day to provide the children in our community with the kind of learning environment they need and deserve. As you know, our Metro area school districts are not responding to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in the same way. Regardless of whether our districts are requiring masks, or simply recommending them, we all agree that it will take more than the health and safety protocols in our schools alone to get COVID under control. Our students and staff do not spend every hour in our buildings. We need strong mitigation efforts that impact the entirety of our community, not just our school buildings, if we are going to keep our students and staff safe and our schools open for in-person learning. That is why we are collectively asking you to establish a mask mandate as quickly as possible.
The fact is that masks work. According to a study by the Duke University School of Medicine, which was shared in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, when there are documented cases of close contact and both individuals are masked, virtually no transmission takes place. This data is particularly relevant to our community because the researchers came to their conclusions studying cases right here in the Omaha metro area. They tracked more than 5,600 quarantines during the 2020-21 school year in Millard Public Schools, and of those nearly six thousand close contacts there were only TWO instances of transmission.1 The evidence right here in our own community speaks to the power of masks.
Omicron now accounts for the majority of the cases in our community, and all of the best guidance indicates that a combination of universal masking and high vaccination rates is the right approach to keeping the disease under control. It is imperative that you as city council members act on this. We cannot just leave it up to our schools to implement mitigation policies. The Omicron variant is highly contagious – even a chance encounter while grocery shopping could be a potential instance of transmission.
We also need to have a mask mandate until we can get our testing infrastructure improved to adequately meet our community’s needs. People are waiting for hours at a time to get tested, which not only creates a backlog but also discourages others from even attempting to get tested in the first place. So, we are operating with incomplete data and, until we can get that fixed, a universal mask mandate is the most effective way to keep everyone safe.
In addition to the health and safety concerns we have for our students and colleagues, we are concerned about workforce shortages. Our case count is higher now than at any other point in the pandemic. Even with the recent CDC change that reduced isolation periods for individuals without symptoms, we fear there is a real possibility we will have staffing shortages in the near future. There are already significant concerns about having access to an adequate number of substitute teachers, and we fear that absent a universal mask mandate we could be looking at classroom and school closures, which we all know would be incredibly disruptive to the families of our community.
The good news is that this does not have to be a prolonged mask mandate. Evidence from countries such as South Africa, that have experienced the Omicron surge earlier than the United States, indicates that there will be a drop-off after cases peak. So, we ask you to help our schools and communities get through this surge the best way we know how – by utilizing all of the tools at our disposal to keep everyone safe and healthy enough to go to work and to school.

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