Students will return to Colter Elementary School next week, nearly two months after they were sent home by the coronavirus pandemic.
Teton County School District No. 1 last week received approval from the state of Wyoming to allow some elementary school students and staff members back into the building, though it will offer services more along the lines of day care than education.
“We were assured it has been approved,” district information coordinator Charlotte Reynolds said Friday, “and we are able to move forward.”
Under the plan, most classrooms in the school will accommodate eight students and one staff member. Total attendance will be limited to 180 students, though more families than that have applied for seats. The district will review applications and prioritize children of essential workers and those whose places of employment are reopening.
Most of the staff will be paraprofessionals, district employees who usually help teachers in their classrooms and perform other duties to aid instruction. Groups of students will rotate through public areas such as the gym or the playgrounds so they can exercise. Students will work under the adapted learning plan, rather than receiving in-person instruction from paraprofessionals.
As businesses reopen, their workers and those in fields like health care and law enforcement will need somewhere for their children to go. Students are still learning via distance education, so as their parents or guardians go to work, they will need supervision.
“School is an important part of our community, an important part of our economy,” Teton County District Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell said at Friday’s COVID-19 community update. “Many folks can’t begin to entertain the idea of going back to work without that resource.”
But at least one district employee the Jackson Hole Daily spoke to worries about the potential health risks. The employee, who requested anonymity, said the district’s lowest-paid employees were being put on the front lines, giving them more exposure than most teachers, who will continue to teach from home.
Asking paraprofessionals to work at Colter is a matter of student equity, Reynolds said. If teachers were to work the child care program, it could give the appearance that those students were receiving an educational benefit others were not. Having teachers stay home ensures all students receive the same level of instruction.
Many paraprofessionals have already been working in school buildings, Reynolds said in an email Sunday, doing work like food service and materials delivery. Their roles are inherently more flexible than the teachers’ under the adapted learning plan, which is why they were chosen to run the Colter program.
Still, the district employee worries that those who have to work at Colter — which will include specials teachers and at least two administrators at a time — will face greater exposure to the novel coronavirus. Because the program will prioritize children of essential workers, such as grocery store clerks or first responders, there is a greater chance that the parents, and therefore their children, could be exposed to the virus.
National outlets such as The New York Times have reported that many first-responder organizations have seen high levels of infection, but little data exists comparing infection rates in those groups with the general population.
At Colter, safety measures will be in place, like frequent hand washing and sanitizing high-touch surfaces, though the district will not be able to ensure kids maintain social distancing, Reynolds clarified Monday. The district is following the Wyoming Department of Health’s guidance for child care centers (attached to the online version of this story), which stipulate adults should wear masks whenever “practicable,” and symptomatic students or adults should not come to the facility.
But one element of the guidance that worries the district employee is that the children will not have to wear masks. The Health Department is silent on a recommendation regarding children wearing masks, so the school district says parents can send their children with masks, Reynolds said, but kids will not be required them to wear them.
As of Sunday, the district was still discussing whether it would offer a way for staff to opt out of working at Colter. What that would look like is not finalized, but it would likely include options for staff members who are immunocompromised or who live with people who are.
Deciding which students are allowed back, which employees have to work, and how stringent to make social distancing and sanitization requirements are “tough questions,” Reynolds said. But the school district is trying to provide what it can as part of a reopening strategy.
“It’s a difficult question to grapple with: How do we ensure the safety of the students but also our own staff?” Reynolds said. “We’re trying to find that balance and support our community and families in getting back to work.”
This article has been updated to show that the state of Wyoming is allowing Colter to reopen to serve a limited population, and that the school district will not be able to ensure that students maintain social distancing recommendations. — Ed.