The Teton County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees approved a “hybrid” plan Wednesday night, paving the way for students to return to classrooms for at least part of the week once school starts.
“We are going to have COVID in our schools, COVID is here, and we cannot deny that,” board Chairwoman Betsy Carlin said. “I think that with an abundance of caution, we can move through this as safely as possible.”
Operating under Tier II of the district’s Smart Start reopening plan means students will have a mix of in-class and distance education. Specifics vary by grade level, but at its most basic, middle and high school students will be in classrooms one to two days a week, and elementary students will attend in person four days a week.
Plans include stipulations for “podding” students, which will limit the number of kids who interact each day. Doing so is meant to lower the potential spread of the coronavirus should a case arise in a school.
The vote was not unanimous. Trustee Kate Mead took issue with several parts of the plan, citing concern about the virus’ potential to spread and the liability that could expose the district to.
“When we have the opportunity to mitigate risk we must do it,” she said. “I’m also a lawyer. And I know that failure of our school district to mitigate risks when we can mitigate risks may end up with us in lawsuits for the next 10 years.”
In particular, Mead worried that approving fall sports, which was included with the consideration of the hybrid plan, would expose the entire student body to the coronavirus. Not every student plays sports, but those who do often leave the valley to compete against other schools, which could increase the risk of spread in Jackson Hole.
“People talk a lot about football,” Mead said. “We only have 60 to 70 kids in football. That’s 10% of our student body — 10% of our student body that could impact the rest.”
Mead stipulated that she wasn’t “anti-sport,” but that she wanted more capacity for testing kids.
Trustee Annie Band was also wary of reopening without more planning in place.
The Smart Start plan doesn’t include concrete metrics that would activate a closure. Teton District Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell told the board that setting such triggers would be difficult, but Band said she still couldn’t support the plan without having a better idea of how the district would react to an increase in cases in the county.
“It’s not responsible for us to move forward with a reopen plan without establishing metrics for our school district,” Band said. “I know that’s a tall order, but I’m just not comfortable without those metrics.”
Mead and Band were the only trustees with irreconcilable differences with the plan as written. While some of their colleagues voiced concerns, they tempered them with the desire for students to get back to school, and the vote landed 5-2 in favor of the hybrid plan.
Trustees’ reasons for the approval were multitudinous. Distance education presents challenges for student accountability and engagement, and the social and emotional development they get at school is nearly impossible to get via online video conferencing.
Trustees also cited community support for reopening schools. The majority of parents who responded to a district survey asking about their preferred educational model chose in-person learning, though teachers in a survey were split about 50-50, Superintendent Gillian Chapman said.
In the end, fear of the damage that could be caused by an entire year of distance learning trumped fear of the virus, a fact summed up by Trustee Janine Teske.
“I don’t like the uncertainty, but it’s there, and we can’t not educate these children,” she said. “We are losing a generation of kids by keeping them out of school.”