By Dr. Joan Wade, published in the February, 2022 issue of Equity and Access.
INSIGHT FROM AESA (Association of Educational Service Agencies) Nebraska Educational Service Unit Coordinating Council, LaVista, NE
Keeping students and staff at Nebraska’s public and private schools safe and secure so school could open on time last fall despite the COVID-19 pandemic was a big job. But the state’s 17 Educational Service Units were up to the challenge.
“When the pandemic hit, everyone realized the ESUs were a perfect solution to address a myriad of issues,” said Dr. Kraig Lofquist, executive director of Nebraska’s Educational Service Unit Coordinating Council, which works closely with all of the ESUs.
Personal protective equipment and common cleaning supplies were hard to find during the summer of 2020 as schools prepared to open for the 2020-21 school year, especially in the numbers needed for the thousands of students and staff in Nebraska’s 244 public school districts and all of its private schools.
“Like all schools across the country, district leaders strove to open safe schools so students could learn,” Lofquist said. “Unfortunately, personal protective equipment such as face masks and hand sanitizer were non-existent. Other common cleaning supplies such as disinfectant wipes, Lysol, Pine-Sol, Clorox were difficult, if not nearly impossible to source.”
By working together, the ESUs partnered with FEMA, the national emergency management agency, to procure and distribute 2 million masks to schools just in time for the first day of classes. An additional order of masks arrived in December, 2020 for the start of the second semester.
The ESUs also worked with the University of Nebraska and the Nebraska Ethanol Board to obtain and distribute 75,000 gallons of hand sanitizer that were delivered to the schools just before the school year began. The market cost for the hand sanitizer was $2,225,000 but it was provided and distributed at no cost. The ESUs coordinated the orders and delivery via the Nebraska Forest Service, allowing the schools to open on time.
In addition, the Nebraska ESUCC operates a “cooperative purchase program” that schools can use to purchase a variety of goods and services. The coop purchase program allowed school districts to purchase these critical supplies at a reduced cost when they became available. The ESUCC monitored supply and supply chains on a daily basis. The ESUs also provided a variety of other assistance to schools to help them with the pandemic:
• Superintendents met weekly through their ESUs to address the ongoing challenges;
• Nebraska’s Health Departments met with schools through their ESUs to give the latest information, allowing an ongoing give and take of thoughts and ideas;
• ESUs provided significant help and guidance (professional development and resources) for distance learning;
• ESUs worked with the Governors Emergency Educational Relief (GEER) fund to coordinate computer/device orders so students who could not access the internet and required digital learning could do so. Additionally, those homes that did not have adequate internet access were provided hotspots so students could learn from home;
• The ESUCC petitioned the Nebraska State Board of Education to address an abundance of critical issues that needed to be addressed, such as school attendance (which helps drive the school funding formula), accreditation status, teacher certification requirements, substitute teacher requirements, and more.