Teton County students don’t resume school until September, but administrators are already planning in earnest for that eventuality.
Whether students attend conventional classes in person or continue coronavirus-restricting distance learning, it won’t be cheap.
Teton County School District No. 1 Superintendent Gillian Chapman told the district’s board of trustees Wednesday night that a full reopening could cost $1.2 million, less than the nearly $1.8 million the School Superintendents Association estimated districts will need to pay. Driving those costs are things like hiring staff, improving sanitation and changing transportation practices.
The problem is, beyond the eye-popping price tag, there are no easy answers to some of the most pressing operational questions.
At Wednesday’s board workshop, Chapman outlined four possible scenarios for students in the fall: a full reopening that would put students back in the classroom, just like a normal school year, with extra cleaning precautions; a partial reopening that would include some in-class time and some at-home work; continuation of the Adapted Learning Plan that guided distance education this past spring; and an intermittent reopening, which would involve starting the school year in the classroom, then doing distance education for the bulk of the cold and flu season.
Trustees didn’t make any decisions at the workshop. Instead they discussed each plan’s inherent difficulties, particularly when it comes to keeping children safe inside school buildings.
“It seems to me, given where we are in the pandemic and what’s happening, is that it’s not going away,” Chairwoman Betsy Carlin said. “To me, looking at an all children, all staff come back to school [option] seems exaggerated.”
Reasons to come back to school have been well documented during the pandemic. Distance education is difficult to make equitable, as some students have more support at home or better digital tools, making it easier. Some are predisposed to independent work, while others benefit from having an in-person teacher to help for reasons that range from disabilities to disorganization.
For parents, school essentially functions as day care as well education. It allows them to work without needing to find child care, which was part of the reason the school district attempted to reopen Colter Elementary School in May as a child care facility.
Even with those considerations, reopening poses significant risks, as the coronavirus could travel quickly through a school population. That’s why the district has created a bevy of strategies to minimize viral transmission.
Changes could include limiting the number of passing periods by grouping elementary school students in cohorts, staggering the arrival of students and passing periods, adding nightly sanitation procedures and closing a school if a case pops up, among other things.
Trustees still had questions about several school operations they saw as most likely to spread the virus.
“The biggest thing I struggle with is transportation,” Trustee Janine Teske said. “How do you get all these kids to school?”
Transportation Director Colby Stevens told the board he had been considering options such as assigned seating or putting one student per seat. However, like all social distancing measures and other antiviral strategies, they would cost more money, something trustees are painfully aware of.
Trustees asked about reducing class sizes to make things safer for children and staff, but Chapman said smaller class sizes would mean increased staffing. That obviously would be expensive, and with state revenues dramatically down, she cautioned that hiring new staff might not be feasible.
Until state guarantees of funding become clearer, district administrators won’t know exactly how to proceed.
“I’m really hopeful that by July 15 that we’ll have that information for that next budget period,” Chapman said.