Schools closing

Hal Wheeler puts a mask on his son, Henry, at Jackson Elementary School before sending him inside for the first day of Kindergarten at the start of the year. Schools had maintained their hybrid schedule since September, but rising caseloads in the county forced the district to switch to fully virtual instruction.

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Students in Teton County School District No. 1 are moving to full-time virtual education, but officials hope the switch will be temporary.

The district’s Board of Trustees unanimously voted Wednesday night to move all school operations online starting Monday through at least Nov. 30. That means students and teachers will have one week of remote education before taking a week off for Thanksgiving.

The decision wasn’t on the agenda, but Superintendent Gillian Chapman told the board that staffing issues necessitated the move.

“This is going to come as a surprise to our families, but I just don’t know what else to do, because we cannot continue to operate our schools on such short staffing,” she told the board.

The University of Wyoming and Central Wyoming College also announced closures starting Monday. (See related story on this page.)

Teton County Health Department contact tracing has found viral transmission has been low to nonexistent in schools. However, rampant transmission in the community has left dozens of district staff quarantined because of exposures to the virus — roughly 40 at the time of Wednesday’s meeting.

That’s also true for students. Dozens might be under quarantine orders at any one time, meaning teachers have an ever-changing number of kids in class.

Those who can’t attend in person have to learn synchronously (at the same time, but remotely over Zoom), which is difficult for younger kids.

“It’s really hard for them to be independent and actively engaged in a synchronous lesson,” Chapman told the board.

The superintendent said she hoped a two-week pause would allow staff members to complete their quarantines and come back to work.

That echoed remarks from Teton District Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell, who said a two-week switch could ease the staffing issues.

Though any reduction in social interactions may be helpful, the move to virtual education might not have a meaningful impact on transmission in the community.

Riddell cited Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that suggests a six- to eight-week closure might be necessary to help curb spread in the wider population.

Still, Teton County board members see the pivot to virtual as a chance for the community to connect the recent rash of cases to a tangible impact. Public health officials say that, because transmission in Teton County is so widespread, despite tourism being so low right now, it is apparent that locals are the driving force behind the growth in cases.

That reality, trustees say, is why they had to make this decision, and they urged people to see it as an inflection point.

“My hope is that this might make it real,” board Chair Betsy Carlin said.

With the holiday approaching, school board members said the timing could be beneficial. Since students were already going to be off for the week of Thanksgiving, they will have only one week of full-time virtual education.

Some also worry that holiday travel could spread the virus when students return.

During public comment Wednesday, one parent, along with several trustees, wondered whether outlying schools like Alta and Moran could be exempt. Their rationale was that those outlying communities could have less exposure.

As of Wednesday’s meeting, Alta and Moran had no teachers quarantined. That stands in contrast to Colter Elementary School, which has roughly 20% of its teachers out.

If outlying schools were to stay open, Chapman said, there would be no guarantee things would stay that way.

“This changes literally hourly,” Chapman said.

As trustees voted to approve the switch, they made clear that, while they hoped the two weeks would allow for a reset, the trajectory of the pandemic could necessitate a longer closure of the buildings.

Trustee Bill Scarlett even suggested extending the closure to Dec. 7, allowing time for any post-Thanksgiving infections or quarantines.

Instead the board kept the hoped-for Nov. 30 return on the table, though it held out the Friday after Thanksgiving as a good point to check in. If things are looking better then, they say, the plan would stay the same.

But if cases continue to increase in Teton County between now and the holiday, raising the risk of exposure for teachers and students, the board indicated it could call a special meeting to discuss whether Nov. 30 is still a prudent return date, or if the closure should be extended.

Contact Tom Hallberg at 732-7079 or thallberg@jhnewsandguide.com.

Tom Hallberg covers a little bit of everything, from skiing to long-form feature stories. A Teton Valley, Idaho, transplant by way of Portland and Bend, Oregon, he spends his time outside work writing fiction, splitboarding and climbing.

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