It’s been roughly three weeks since middle and high school students returned from spring break and jumped into four days of in-person school — the third educational model they’ve adapted to in just 12 months.
The decision was made in February when the Teton County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees voted to combine student cohorts and welcome everyone back amid a tidal wave of divergent public comments, polls and petitions.
Citing opposing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and independent studies, students, parents and teachers weighed in to voice both opposition and support for the transition. But ultimately, Superintendent Gillian Chapman told the News&Guide the decision to return to a more normal schedule was primarily based on CDC guidelines.
While the board and administrators are “always interested in feedback from students, parents, and staff members,” Chapman said “on an issue like this, it’s not really a community vote.”
“At the end of the day, it came down to science. And what the CDC, the state and the county health officer were recommending,” the superintendent said.
That county health officer, Dr. Travis Riddell, penned a letter to the board Feb. 15, writing, “While the students themselves may not be at high risk for serious disease, increased transmission in schools could easily lead to wider community spread including to higher risk individuals.
“I am all for increased classroom time as long as it can be achieved while remaining compliant with local, state, and national guidance,” the letter stated.
Part of the confusion and concern comes from the fact that CDC recommendations are constantly changing. In February, the federal agency pushed for students to return to the classroom, adding districts should “prioritize” universal mask wearing and social distancing. But its stance on vaccinations for teachers was less clear.
In their February emails, several teachers used CDC recommendations to suggest opening schools wasn’t safe, while parents used different CDC data to say the opposite.
“CDC guidelines include using cohorts in order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. If you all decide to return to a full-time schedule, you will be disregarding CDC guidelines,” wrote Colleen Maestas, a Spanish teacher at Jackson Hole High School.
Alli Noland, the mother of an eighth grader at Jackson Hole Middle School, also wrote to the board to express her concern.
“Kids need school, but they also need their parents to be alive,” she wrote. Noland’s husband is currently battling stage 4 cancer, and with the majority of students still un-vaccinated, the concern for transmission weighs heavily on her mind.
Still, she told the News&Guide she knows there are students who needed to return to in-person school.
Jackson Hole High School Principal Scott Crisp said, “We had students that we had to see.”
Those high-risk students weren’t performing well with the reduced structure of the hybrid model, Crisp said, and with Advanced Placement tests fast approaching, he knew a return to in-person interaction was needed to “finish the school year strong.”
Student performance has been difficult to track during the pandemic (statewide standardized tests were made optional last spring), but Crisp and Chapman both said they haven’t seen a huge impact on grades or test scores as a result of online schooling.
The Wyoming Test of Proficiency and Progress (WY-TOPP) scores that were collected were consistent with prior non-pandemic years, something Crisp attributes to the hard work of his teachers and their existing implementation of Canvas, a web-based classroom hosting platform. Looking forward, the principal emphasized that a more flexible approach to education needs to be implemented.
“I hope we’ve learned that a one-model system isn’t meeting the needs for all students,” Crisp said, adding that developing a new model will take time and likely happen over the summer.
Parents had the option to select fully remote education at the start of the school year, but they weren’t given the chance to transition once the new four-day system was announced. Any student who was attending two days was expected to start coming in four days, though there were a number of “individual cases” where exceptions were made, all at the high school level, the superintendent said.
Crisp said there is currently a fluctuating range of 25 to 35 students who are doing all-remote school.
In terms of community health benchmarks, which were a concern for many parents and students, Chapman said the mask mandate and availability of vaccines for teachers and staff were deciding factors that made the expansion to four days possible.
Also compelling was the ability to open up windows and have students go outside for certain blocks. At the high school, they’ve put up a large tent in the parking lot so students can eat lunch outdoors.
So far, the increased in-person classes don’t seem to have caused a severe outbreak in the school district, and surveillance testing, which about 10% to 20% of students are participating in, indicates “that our student population is reflecting what’s happening in our community,” Chapman said. In recent months, both groups have seen a decline in cases.
Chapman also celebrated the efforts of staff members over spring break to prepare the schools for increased attendance — work she says has made for “a seamless transition.”
This fall, the superintendent said students will be back in school five days a week, with no remote option.
“We know that face-to-face instruction is what we are best at. And that’s what students grow the most from.”
“At the end of the day, it came down to science. And what the CDC, the state and the county health officer were recommending.” — Gillian Chapman TCSD Superintendent