Wilson outdoor classes

Wilson Elementary School third-grade teacher Lauren Roux reads with students behind the school earlier last fall. Teton County School District No. 1 administrators hope holding some classes and lunches outside will help them mitigate viral spread at the middle and high schools when classes return to full size after spring break.

In a school year filled with monumental tasks, employees across Teton County School District No. 1 are faced with another one.

Now that the district’s Board of Trustees has voted to send middle and high school students back to school for four days of in-person instruction, teachers and staff must shift away from the hybrid model they developed for the first part of the year.

“It’s a tall order,” Superintendent Gillian Chapman said Monday.

Secondary students have been attending in an A/B schedule. Half the students go in person Mondays and Wednesdays, and the other half Tuesdays and Thursdays. All other days are virtual, except for students who need extra support.

Starting April 12 when kids return from spring break the new schedule will be Monday through Thursday in person, with Friday virtual. Students will have full class sizes again, up to 25 or so kids.

Between now and then, teachers will rewrite lessons, new bus schedules will be drawn and food service plans will be adjusted to fit the higher number of mouths to feed each day.

“What our staff will be doing is what normally they spend all summer working on,” Chapman said. “And so they’re going to be doing that over the next few weeks.”

The school board met in a special meeting Thursday after Trustee Bill Scarlett called for a discussion to adjust the schedule. Drawing on his daughter’s experience, Scarlett said the hybrid schedule didn’t offer students enough rigor, saying their virtual days didn’t keep them busy throughout the day.

That’s a sentiment shared by some parents who were eager to see their kids go back to school more days in person.

“It’s not the same as if the student is live in class,” parent Thomas Smits told the News&Guide about the virtual days. “The content is dry and not very interactive. And, you know, sometimes the students are watching these Zoom videos from the couch.”

Smits was one of about a dozen parents who spoke at the Thursday meeting, the majority of whom supported the four-day week. Several were signatories on a petition that urged the board to approve the schedule change because the hybrid schedule wasn’t meeting student needs.

“When you’re sitting on the couch off days, which were basically like two and a half of five days so half the time, the rigidity just wasn’t there,” Alex Hillinger, one of the parents who organized the petition, told the News&Guide on Monday.

Hillinger said he wished the district had gone to this kind of schedule at the beginning of the year. With measures like masking, social distancing and improved ventilation, he feels that the district could have had kids in the classroom more often.

Other districts around Wyoming returned their students to full-time in-class learning, or something close to it, before Teton County, which Scarlett referenced. He said that “48 plus one” school districts in the region — all the Wyoming ones and Teton County, Idaho — had somehow kept students safe with relatively normal schedules.

“Forty-eight districts in this state out of 49 tell us that we can go back to school and teach our kids, not four days a week, but five days a week,” Scarlett said Thursday. “We say we’re the premier district in the state of Wyoming — we can’t figure it out.”

A split community

A majority of the board ultimately sided with Scarlett, citing teacher vaccinations and improved pandemic conditions in Teton County as their reasoning. Trustee Janine Bay Teske said that they needed to make the decision that was best for students’ education, and after a year of disrupted learning, a return to more school days was necessary.

“We can’t live like this forever,” she told the News&Guide on Monday. “I really believe in my heart that kids are not getting everything that they need, socially, emotionally, as well as educationally.”

Trustees Alan Brumsted and Kate Mead voted against the measure. Mead has consistently made conservative votes on pandemic measures throughout the school year, voicing concerns about the lack of specific testing programs, sports and other matters.

Brumsted, the only former educator on the board, said he wanted to stay the course because a massive schedule change could inject uncertainty and difficulty into what amounts to nine weeks of the school year. In any year, he said, teachers get better as the year goes on.

“They put a lot of work into developing the first semester,” he said. “The nice thing about that is the second semester you go back and say, ‘Well this is what I did first semester, it didn’t work. Let’s tweak it.’ ”

That process was likely supercharged this year since teachers were working under an entirely new model. Changing the schedule now may nullify some of those lessons because teachers will essentially start from scratch after spring break.

That’s not lost on students.

“I think the teachers won’t be used to it because they had a system, and now they have to change their whole system,” junior Maya Ferris said.

Ferris isn’t happy about the board’s decision. Some students will be excited to return to the classroom, but she thinks others will be worried about having to readjust their learning style and schedule, and have concerns about viral transmission.

That split seems to exist across the entire community. Chapman said parents are likely divided pretty evenly, and the students who spoke at Thursday’s meeting were as well.

Satisfying a divided community has been the situation for the school board all year. Many parents who have written the board have pushed for normal schedules and sports, despite the presence of COVID-19.

Staff, on the other hand, have advocated continuing the hybrid schedule. The Teton County Education Association surveyed its members ahead of the meeting, and 86% of respondents said maintaining the A/B schedule the rest of the year was their preferred option.

Without mentioning the survey directly, Scarlett took issue during the meeting with staff who didn’t want to return to a four-day schedule. He said Jeff Stines, the association president, told him vaccines were an important part of making teachers feel comfortable being in the classroom.

Now that teachers are being vaccinated, Scarlett said, it is time to end the A/B schedule.

“It feels like we get nothing but excuses why we can’t,” Scarlett said. “Tell me why we can. Tell me how we can.”

Lack of distancing

Now that the board has heeded requests to change the schedule, some parents say they are in a bind. Geneva Chong, whose son is a sixth grader at Jackson Hole Middle School, had pulled him out of the hybrid schedule for the winter.

He went to school under the hybrid schedule in the fall, but after cold weather forced the district to bring outdoor classes inside and close windows, Chong opted to go virtual. She wanted him to return after spring break to the hybrid schedule, but with double the number of students and double the number of in-person days, she no longer feels comfortable doing that.

“I want my son in there. I feel like they can manage two days,” Chong said. “But if it’s four days, and he’s trying to Zoom four days a week, that’s just not doable. That’s terrible.”

Chong’s worry about viral transmission came up during the meeting as well. The A/B schedule was chosen so students and teachers would have enough space to maintain the 6 feet of social distancing recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

With full classes, social distancing is nearly impossible at Jackson Hole High School, Principal Scott Crisp told the board Thursday.

“I can’t say give me a 6-foot distance continually through the day,” he said. “And I think with our staff, it would create some anxiety.”

As the CDC and President Joe Biden’s administration have pushed for students to return to the classroom, the federal agency issued new guidance on reopening schools. Districts should “prioritize” universal mask wearing and social distancing “to the greatest extent possible,” the CDC says.

Part of Chong’s decision not to send her son back is the lack of social distancing once 700 kids fill the halls of the middle school. With the A/B schedule she thought the schools were maintaining that distance well, but she doesn’t think that will be the case with double the kids.

If a lack of social distancing leads to higher cases, it could mean that more students need to quarantine because of exposure to the coronavirus. Such absences could be disruptive, but Chapman said that other districts around Wyoming haven’t seen huge spikes after going back to a full-time schedule, so she hopes that’s the case in Teton County.

Not all parents are worried. Hillinger, who circulated the survey, said he thinks the measures in place, like masks and increased surface cleaning, make keeping 6 feet of distance less important. He also cited a recommendation from the World Health Organization that 3 feet of distancing is fine in schools, though the data is mixed on how much distancing is appropriate.

District cleaning and maintenance staff will do their best to arrange classrooms in ways that promote distancing and accommodate larger student populations, communications director Charlotte Reynolds said. By spring break’s end, they will have moved furniture out of storage and rearranged classrooms and other spaces.

Administrators also plan on opening windows if the temperature is above 40 degrees, and setting up the tents that were on school grounds in the fall. They hope holding outdoor classes and lunches will give kids time without masks and outside the more crowded classrooms.

Educators and staff have proven twice they are up to the challenge of large-scale change, first last spring when schools went virtual basically overnight, and this summer when they developed the hybrid model. This new adaptation will be a “significant change,” Chapman told the board Thursday, but one she thought they were capable of handling.

“I am so confident in our team; they would move heaven and earth to make that happen,” she said.

With a month and a half before students return from spring break, they might have to.

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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