With teacher vaccinations imminent, the Teton County School District board of trustees charged into the heated topic of increasing the number of days students should spend in class, face to face with a teacher.
Trustees met Thursday night for a special meeting with just one agenda item: considering changes to the district’s hybrid schedule, particularly at the secondary level.
In a 5-2 vote, the board elected to increase in-class days for middle and high school students to four a week starting April 12, right after spring break.
Secondary students have been going to school on an A/B schedule in which each group has two days in the classroom.
Trustee Bill Scarlett, who asked for the special meeting, said it was time to bring them back at least four days a week.
“I hope we could come to a solution tonight, so we can give our sixth- to 12th-graders the adequate and equitable education that our Constitution requires,” Scarlett said to open the discussion.
This school year, the board and district administration have juggled a pair of mandates that have at times seemed to be in opposition. The state Constitution requires a certain level of academic success and support, which is best achieved through full-time, in-person learning. But the coronavirus poses a risk to student and staff safety.
To mitigate that risk, elementary school students have been isolated in classroom pods. In the middle and high schools, however, the number of classes makes that impossible, so the A/B schedule was chosen.
Bringing students back to school full time has been a national issue in recent weeks. President Biden has stressed it as a priority, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance for reopening schools Feb. 12.
The CDC’s new document says teacher vaccinations are important but not ultimately necessary for reopening.
Scarlett’s original proposal brought students back to school for four days a week before teachers received their second shots.
He referenced a study from Israel that showed better than 90% effectiveness from just one shot of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, though other data sources show a lower efficacy rate and indicate antibody production is higher after the second dose.
The rest of the school board wasn’t inclined to make Scarlett’s suggested changes before teachers were fully vaccinated.
“By the end of spring break … everybody would have had two vaccines,” said Trustee Janine Bay Teske, “and we would have gone through the period of waiting, and consequently the vaccines would be effective.”
Trustees took public comment from a dozen people Thursday. Several who advocated changes said waiting until after spring break was the right call.
“It seems like things are going in the right direction,” parent Andrew Calder said, “and probably after spring break would be a great time to try this, assuming things are still going this way.”
During comment from trustees, Scarlett and Teske alluded to their belief that the hybrid schedule has not worked for many students. Several parents agreed, saying it didn’t offer enough rigor for successful students or support for struggling ones.
Thomas Smits even gave his cell phone number to trustees, telling them to call and talk to his daughter on her virtual days.
“You could then realize firsthand that virtual learning is nearly ineffective for high school students,” Smits said. “If you could talk candidly with some of the students in the high school, they would tell you that their education is nowhere near what it was a year ago.”
Others who commented opposed the change. Teacher-parent Christina Montiel said changing the schedule would decrease teachers’ planning time, which would nullify educational benefits.
“Shoving all the students in the classroom every day with half the planning time would not necessarily create a better education,” she said.
Montiel’s comments jibe with a Teton County Education Association survey that found 86% of its members said staying the course was the preferred option. The second option with the most teacher support was combining the A and B cohorts after spring break, but with a virtual week following break.
But the board was not interested in a virtual week after spring break. Trustee Betsy Carlin said it would disadvantage working families and encourage those with means to simply take a three-week spring break.
Several students also commented. Like the adults, they were split on whether to come back. None was more forceful than seventh-grader Ellie Stubbs, who vehemently opposed the four-day week plan.
“I would not want to nor would I feel safe going back to the classroom with 700-plus people in the building during a pandemic,” she said. “It would be irresponsible and completely against the rules.”
Stubbs argued that the A/B schedule has effectively balanced the district’s dual mandates of keeping people safe and providing a quality education. She acknowledged that students’ academic performance and mental health may improve with more in-class time, but said public health concerns outweighed those benefits.
Considering that new variants of the coronavirus are spreading in Jackson Hole, and that the proposed schedule change will make social distancing difficult, if not impossible, Stubbs said a four-day week was unwise.
“This makes it a dangerous option, not only for students but for all teachers who are risking their health,” she said.
But the majority of the board decided educational concerns were paramount. Trustees Mead and Alan Brumstead cast the only no votes.
Superintendent Gillian Chapman and her staff have until April 12 to plan for the changes. Lesson plans and bus schedules are on the laundry list of things that need to be altered to accommodate a four-day schedule for all students.
Virtual options will remain available for any student who wants them, district communications director Charlotte Reynolds said Friday. Originally, parents were asked to stick with the choice of virtual or in-person school that they made for the entire semester, but Reynolds said the district understands families may wish to adjust based on the new schedule.