School crossing

With schools in uncharted waters facing the COVID-19 pandemic, numbers that dictate when schools close and reopen could be a guiding tool, but the school district continues to operate without them.

“We’re often asked to set specific metrics to make our decisions,” Superintendent Gillian Chapman said. “I would love to be able to do that. It would be so much easier for us.”

Teton County School District No. 1 has so far not specified guardrails with which to make COVID-19-related choices. At its December meeting the district board of trustees again declined to choose any, despite discussing the matter.

The Wyoming Department of Education has not provided any such numbers, instead approving individual districts’ Smart Start plans without hard figures included. In part that’s because deciding what those numbers should be isn’t straightforward.

Teton District Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell told the school board at the end of summer that he could find no published metrics rooted in epidemiology. Without much global experience sending kids to school during a pandemic, no historical examples exist as a reference.

Trustee Kate Mead spearheaded the Dec. 9 discussion, saying it was “too loosey-goosey” to not have numbers that teachers and parents could count on, and offering hospital capacity as one potential measure.

“As an academic institution, it’s really important for us to have decision-making methods,” she said.

Other school districts have attempted to find such standards. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio mandated that schools close if the city’s test positivity rate reached 3%. It reached that threshold this fall, so despite growing evidence that schools were not a significant source of transmission they had to switch to virtual learning.

The mayor eventually changed that rule, and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown recently underwent a similar change of heart. She had mandated that her state’s schools use criteria like test positivity rate and community case levels to decide whether to employ in-person or virtual learning.

Last week Brown changed the metrics to be advisory, not mandatory.

After their discussion Dec. 9 the trustees arrived at the same conclusion they had at the beginning of the year — that they still had no evidence-based way to pick metrics. Trustee Betsy Carlin worried “hard and fast” metrics could force the district to switch to virtual education when that wasn’t necessary.

“But I am not opposed to having some indicators that would force an emergency meeting or force us to have the conversation,” she said.

Newly minted board Chair Keith Gingery said he was open to having trend statistics like the 10-day rolling average of new daily cases per 100,000 people as triggers for the board to call an emergency meeting. But he said he was uncomfortable with choosing specific numbers for closures.

In the end the trustees left the meeting in the same position they started it — without a set of guidelines for the decision or to even call an emergency meeting. Trustee Janine Teske said Chapman and other school officials are constantly in contact with the Teton County Health Department, which she felt equipped them to make appropriate decisions.

“It’s not like we’re flying blind. I just feel like we are not the experts to be developing metrics,” she said. “We really need the experts to tell us, and that’s kind of what we’ve been doing all along.”

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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