One thing is clear about schools reopening: Nothing is clear.
Even though the Teton County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees approved the district’s Smart Start plan at its July 15 meeting, students may not find themselves back in the classroom come Sept. 1. With the pandemic raging and many places, including Teton County, setting active case records, too many factors remain in flux.
“What you are approving is our plan to reopen schools, with options,” Superintendent Gillian Chapman told the board. “However, the Teton County Public Health Officer Dr. [Travis] Riddell, in conjunction with the Wyoming State Health Officer Dr. [Alexia] Harrist, actually has the authority to close schools.”
Therein lies the dilemma for district administrators and the board: They have some leeway within the Wyoming Department of Education reopening guidelines, but they are also at the whim of the virus’ progression. As required, the district’s three-tiered plan mirrors the basic structure of the state’s, and it will need state approval before going into effect.
Tier one is relatively normal school, with extra precautions. The second is a hybrid-learning schedule that features some classroom time, particularly for students who need the most support, and some distance education. The third tier is full-on distance education like what students experienced this spring.
In her letter at the beginning of the Smart Start plan, Chapman wrote that the district hopes to open its doors Sept. 1. Given that most districts across Wyoming start earlier than that, Teton County administrators will be able to gauge how successful their reopenings are.
“We have an added advantage in that we can learn from what other people were doing,” Chapman told the board.
Most of the board’s discussion focused on tier one, which would have students in seats pretty much full-time. The community benefits of kids returning are hard to overstate, including allowing some parents to return to work without having to find child care, which is at a premium.
The school district is also one of the county’s biggest employers, meaning hundreds of workers could know they are secure during a time when unemployment has reached historic levels. But the risks could be enormous: Solid data doesn’t exist on how younger children spread the virus, so it is hard to predict the effect reopening would have on the outbreak.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that children are less likely to have a serious case and are at no more risk than adults. However, isolated cases of multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children have been seen.
That condition is a hyperimmune response in which a child’s body’s reaction to the virus creates multiorgan failure. In the face of such uncertainties, board members tried to parse how much power they had to halt the reopening, if needed.
“So what happens if Dr. Harrist says its OK to open and we choose not to?” Trustee Janine Teske asked.
Turns out, Chapman replied, that’s not an option. The school board has emergency powers to close schools during a crisis, but if state officials deem schools safe to open, the district’s funding could be in jeopardy if it ignored that guidance.
Knowing the board’s power rests in the realm of emergency closures, Trustee Annie Band tried to figure out exactly what that means. She asked Chapman what “triggers” the district could put in place that would demand school closures.
Could community spread close schools? Could a case in a school building? Could the district test all students before they return?
Ultimately, Chapman didn’t have those answers, but she said she would inquire with the state Education Department. Band had several questions about the plan’s first tier — reopening — because she felt the district has an obligation to keep children and teachers safe.
“As district leaders, I think we have to be extremely careful not to espouse a plan that has some level of acceptable mortality,” she said.
Trustees had fewer questions at last week’s meeting than they did at a June workshop when they discussed intricacies of the plan such as transportation, sanitization stations and staggered lunches.
Last week, however, the board focused on big questions of reopening. Chairwoman Betsy Carlin, who has spent her career in early childhood education, was particularly concerned about learning loss and social-emotional development in the district’s youngest students.
“I appreciate in the tier two that the elementary kids would be the last to go into an adaptive learning plan,” she said. “I think that’s really important because certainly the kindergarten [and] grade one and two students will require a little bit more in-person learning, and I think that they need to be prioritized as we go forward.”
The Adaptive Learning Plan is district lingo for distance education, and in some ways it is easier for middle and high school students to learn under it. They use technology in the classroom already, and many of their homework assignments are on tablets or computers.
For elementary school, distance education presents more challenges, so keeping those kids in the classroom is a priority for Carlin. Recent research from South Korea showed that kids younger than 10 may spread the virus less than older students.
That could mean it is safer for younger elementary school students to return, but the effects of full classrooms on viral transmission will remain unclear until school actually begins. No matter what happens, the district is venturing into new territory.
“I think we’ve got a tough year ahead of us,” Band said, “and if we can face the brutal reality of the fact that things are just not going to be normal … we’re going to set ourselves up for a much safer process.”