Trustee Janine Teske summed up the fears of educators around the country at last week’s school board meeting. During her statement outlining her support for the school district’s reopening plan, she painted a stark picture of the moment we find ourselves in.
“We are losing a generation of kids by keeping them out of school,” she said.
The fear of disrupting children’s crucial development years with widespread online learning has school administrators scrambling for answers. Some places with low COVID-19 prevalence have seen success in reopening buildings.
Others, like Israel or the state of Georgia, have backpedaled reopenings or quarantined hundreds of students after outbreaks tore through schools and their communities. With all those disparate influences in mind, the school board approved the Teton County School District No. 1 hybrid plan that will govern the course of area schools for at least the beginning of the year.
The hybrid plan was not administrators’ first choice. Superintendent Gillian Chapman wrote in the Smart Start reopening plan that kids would be in desks full time come Sept. 1, but the coronavirus has dismantled even the most fervent hopes.
A surge in cases that started in June pushed Teton County public health officials to pump the brakes on in-person learning, with Teton District Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell expressing his apprehension in a letter during the Aug. 7 community update.
“Reopening to fully in-person learning at our current case level would be a wholly new step in this pandemic,” he wrote. “It would be a live, natural experiment. I am hesitant to experiment on our children.”
When Riddell wrote those words, the rate of new daily cases in Teton County was 40.2 per 100,000 people. As of Monday evening that rate sat at 9.1 per 100,000, a vast improvement but a number that still could portend rapid growth in schools without precautions.
By recommending the hybrid plan, Riddell set in motion a hectic week in which principals at every level — elementary, middle and high school — drew up supplementary plans, which the board accepted at its Aug. 12 meeting.
What the hybrid plan means for students depends on their age. Research from South Korea suggests older children spread the virus as much as adults do, so Jackson Hole Middle and High schools will start the year on a 4x4 block schedule that includes one or two days of instruction.
“With the block systems we’ve lessened transitions; we’ve lessened contacts between students,” high school Principal Scott Crisp told the board.
“We’ve also given some predictability to teachers, students and parents.”
Students will have four classes in the fall semester, rather than the seven they usually do. Half the student body will be in the A group and half in the B group, and only one group will attend in-person classes each day.
Under one plan, they would alternate in-person days Monday through Thursday, and both would have distance education Fridays. Another version would give each just one day in school, either Monday or Tuesday, and the other days would be virtual.
With only four classes per student, contact tracing should be easier when a student or teacher tests positive for the virus. Beyond that, Crisp sees some academic benefit, too.
“It really allows us to slow the day down,” he said. “It allows a student to only manage four classes at once on campus.”
By virtue of increasing the time spent in each class, students will earn one credit per class per semester, rather the half credit they usually earn. That gives them the opportunity to earn eight total credits in the school year, rather than seven.
Elementary schoolers are a different story, as a Kaiser Family Foundation review of available data shows they may be less likely to spread the coronavirus or have a severe reaction. Time spent in school is also even more important for both academics and social skills in younger students, so long-term virtual learning could negatively affect their development.
“The educational risks of extended distance learning may be higher for young children and children with disabilities,” says a National Academy of Sciences report on school reopenings.
To counter the possibility of educational backsliding, elementary school students will go to school four days a week, with Fridays for distance learning.
In contrast with the middle and high schools, elementary school students will be in pods.
They’ll interact with fewer kids throughout the day, making contact tracing easier and theoretically limiting the number of people who would need to quarantine should a case arise in a school.
“Unlike secondary students, they’re with the general education teacher throughout the day,” Colter Elementary School Principal Bo Miller told the board, “so the pod structure is a reliable model.”
After a couple of hours of discussion and presentations — and perhaps a record amount of public comment — the board approved the hybrid plan by a 5-2 vote. Trustees Annie Band and Kate Mead were the no votes, citing a lack of testing and the concurrent approval of sports as some of their reasons to dissent.
In spite of their opposition, the main feeling from the board was that of support for having kids in desks, even in a truncated manner. Whether it was for a sense of normalcy, or to give parents somewhere safe for kids to learn, or to prevent a generation of Teton County students from negative educational effects, the five trustees who voted to approve the plan said in-person schooling was crucial.
Trustee Keith Gingery even went as far as to look to the future.
“I want to have a really strong talk in September,” he said, “about moving beyond this plan and getting rid of all of those virtual days … and just getting back to school.”