Wilson outdoor classes

Wilson Elementary School third-grade teacher Lauren Roux reads with students behind the school earlier this year. Fresh air when possible, a hybrid schedule, smaller classes and mask-wearing are some of the precautions Teton County schools have implemented to avoid transmission of COVID-19.

With Christmas on the horizon, a recent survey shows how holiday travel can make teachers nervous about returning to the classroom.

In a survey of 92 Teton County Education Association members, 47.8% of teachers reported feeling “very uncomfortable” or “uncomfortable” with classes resuming right after the Thanksgiving break. Though the association’s members didn’t have a clear consensus on the best plan for returning after the break, association President Jeff Stines asked the school board to pump the brakes in a Nov. 20 letter.

“I fully understand the challenges we are collectively facing, and I urge you to give strong consideration to delaying a return to face-to-face instruction for at least one week after Thanksgiving break given the current rates of infection and community spread,” he wrote.

The association’s survey also found that 45.6% of respondents were uncomfortable teaching in the classroom at all, though a strong majority (76.1%) said their individual schools were doing well at following coronavirus protocols.

The board of trustees suspended in-person learning for the week before the Thanksgiving holiday, hoping a two-week pause would allow teachers in quarantine because of exposure to COVID-19 to return to work. In his letter Stines asked the board to delay the Nov. 30 return because of the potential for student travel over the holiday.

Ultimately, the board stuck with its plan, bringing kids back Nov. 30.

“We have been monitoring staff quarantine and isolations along with the community dashboard numbers and believe it is the best to stick with the decision we made at the November 11th board meeting,” board Chair Betsy Carlin wrote in response to Stines.

Carlin did say the board would consider some of the teachers’ other requests at its Wednesday meeting as it discusses COVID-19 precautions. Stines’ letter said teachers want the district to provide clear standards for making decisions.

State and national education experts have provided little to no guidance for making decisions regarding school closures, and the school board has so far resisted setting its own numbers absent clear recommendations. However, teachers say the uncertainty that results from not having strong benchmarks makes planning difficult.

They also said they were worried about several other issues, including that at least one educator contracted COVID-19 at work, that there is a continual need for personal protective equipment and that enforcement and messaging should be consistent.

“We are already stressed out and on edge,” one teacher commented. “Teachers are being asked to do so much, too much, and it is starting to take a toll on our health and mental well-being.”

Many of the anonymous comments mentioned educators’ desire for a longer switch to virtual learning after Thanksgiving, reflecting the plurality of staff who worried the holiday would heighten transmission in the community.

“I have so many students that are telling me they are flying and driving around the country, and out of the country,” one teacher wrote. “I think it would be irresponsible to not have a 14-day quarantine of the schools at least to allow the schools to be sure that we are not contributing to the problem.”

Other mountain town school districts are also grappling with the question of how to mitigate viral spread around the holidays. The Park Record in Park City, Utah, reported that the South Summit School District has added a “quasi-quarantine” week following the Christmas holiday.

Students there had been scheduled to return to the classroom Jan. 4 following the holiday break, but they will have a week of online classes starting that day and return in person Jan. 11. District officials said the extra week at home should allow cases of COVID-19 caught during the holiday to arise before students return to the buildings.

Despite their concerns about the virus, Teton County educators underscored the value of in-person learning for students.

“Would like to continue with face- to-face instruction because it’s what’s best for students. I think there could be additional protocols put in place such as wearing face shields and moving desks further apart than the current 6 feet,” one teacher wrote.

The association’s letter was part of the school board’s packet of materials for its Wednesday meeting, at which trustees will consider pausing wrestling due to COVID-19. Public health officials say pausing close-contact sports like basketball and wrestling could limit spread, though school officials say stringent measures have kept transmission rare in classrooms and sports.

“We believe these tightly managed protocols are safer than students not having the structure and the interaction with peers,” Superintendent Gillian Chapman said at Friday’s community update.

Although cases have yet to arise during school-sanctioned sporting events and practices, the potential still exists, especially with winter sports being held indoors, unlike most fall sports. Around the country, Teton District Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell said Friday, amateur and professional sports teams haven’t been so fortunate as athletes in Jackson.

“On a statewide and national level we’re certainly seeing extracurricular activities result in clusters of cases,” Riddell said. “Even in professional sports teams where there’s a tremendous financial incentive and effort to try to prevent spread, it is happening.”

In the face of the largest coronavirus spike the county has ever seen, officials like Riddell are preaching a proactive approach so that viral transmission doesn’t reach school sports. New statewide health orders that go into effect Wednesday limit the number of people who can gather in one place, but they do provide an exemption for sporting events.

The agenda for Wednesday’s school board meeting says Chapman and her staff will recommend the temporary cessation of wrestling while allowing basketball to continue.

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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