After two years of parenting during a pandemic Amy Kuszak thought she’d feel safer by now.
Instead she’s waking up fearful for her two middle schoolers and her elementary school daughter, who is immunocompromised and now at greater risk of catching the omicron variant of the coronavirus.
“We’re just trying to be as careful and as safe as possible,” she told the News&Guide. “And it’s hard when simple precautions aren’t being implemented.”
When Teton County School District No. 1 opted to lift its masking requirement Jan. 1 during a record surge of COVID-19 infections, concerned parents were faced with a difficult choice: send their students to less-masked classrooms, or keep them home waiting for conditions to improve. For teachers, staying home wasn’t an option.
Some are holding out hope for this evening’s regular board meeting, where Teton District Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell is expected to comment.
But the board’s only proposed updates to its Smart Start Plan are a mask requirement at Cubs and Grizzlies day care and the removal of positive antibody tests as quarantine exemptions, to align the district with new Wyoming Department of Health policy.
Riddell told the News&Guide his message is pretty simple: People should wear masks.
Public Health Director Jodie Pond said pediatric cases are ticking up but “the proof will be at the end of this week.”
On Friday, the same day Teton County topped the nation for per capita COVID-19 cases, Teton County School District No. 1 called off classes, opting for a day of remote learning.
The cancellation was necessary because travel restrictions in light of the week’s heavy snowfall would prevent teachers from getting to school, communications director Charlotte Reynolds said, but she also said staff COVID absences were also a factor.
There were 15 to 20 staff out for COVID-related reasons all week and more than 30 for other reasons. Student absences were even more severe: After the week began with 92 student COVID absences, there were over 200 on Thursday. Paired with non-COVID absences, a fifth of the public student body was absent.
Ahead of the district’s Jan. 1 vote, about 50 parents, grandparents and teachers wrote to the board, with 45 calling for a continued mask requirement. One grandparent said COVID put them in the hospital, while a mother said COVID forced her business to close. A teacher was concerned her first graders would miss class for quarantine. (See the new Test to Stay protocols and CDC quarantine recommendations attached to the online version of this article at JHNewsAndGuide.com.)
Since then, some have condemned the meeting as “unorganized” and “uninformed,” expressing disappointment in the board’s decision, while others thanked the board for “sticking to the plan” and “following Riddell’s lead.”
Riddell noted last week that community mandates have diminishing returns due to lack of enforcement and individual choice. But others said masking was easier to require in schools.
“I cannot fathom why, except for a lack of political courage, the school board did not insist kids return masked,” wrote Eileen Prugh on Jan. 5.
“It’s negligent at best and dangerous at worst while faced with the fastest spreading variant, our numbers are higher than they’ve ever been and the disruption to commerce and life in general worse than we’ve seen since March 2020.”
School board Chairman Keith Gingery responded to Prugh directly with some of the same points he’s made publicly: hospitalization numbers are low and Riddell is the primary authority here.
“I trust Dr. Riddell and believe he is leading us in the right direction,” Gingery wrote. “He is recommending that everyone wear masks indoors and somewhere between 75-80% of our students are wearing masks. ... People are listening to his recommendation.”
Those percentages are higher than what other students and parents told the News&Guide. One parent, who sent her child to school with a mask on, said the child unmasked along with her classmates, following the teacher’s decision to unmask.
“At the elementary schools, if a parent asks the teacher to help/remind their child to wear their mask, then teachers do so,” Colter Elementary School Principal Bo Miller said in an email. “With masks being optional but encouraged, at the elementary level parents make the choice, and then staff do their best to ensure students follow their parent’s directions.”
Most elementary schools are seeing 20% student absences, Miller said.
“We are prepared for the absence rates to go higher for both staff and students over the next few weeks before then decreasing,” he said.
Munger Mountain Elementary School Principal Dan Abraham noted a similar uptick in infections and absences in this month’s district update and said the return to school brought excitement and “some anxiety.”
He commended school nurses for their role managing cases and quarantines, and he described similar striation in mask wearing, with older students taking them off throughout the day.
Kuszak, the mother of three, said it’s important for her kids to keep going in-person; the experience from home is simply inadequate. But as her 8-year-old daughter sits in class with her N95, Kuszak worries a larger shutdown is looming.
“I can’t believe how many people I know that have COVID,” she said. “It’s ripping through the valley.”
This Monday, the Jackson Hole Community School transitioned to at-home learning after eight of its 93 enrolled students were quarantined with COVID-19. Other private schools in the valley have not yet followed suit.
Since Dec. 26, there have been 243 pediatric COVID cases (ages 5 to 18) in Teton County, more than doubling the Health Department’s previous two-week total.
For those with higher-risk children, the concern is palpable.
“As a father of two students, one who suffers from asthma, I’m asking you to reconsider and put all political and personal differences aside,” Andy Schwertfeger wrote to the school board last Friday. “The threat from this disease is real.”
This article has been edited to specify and expand upon the reason public schools called for a remote learning day on Friday. — Ed.