Classes at Victor Elementary School resumed this week after COVID-19 — and a lack of preventive safety measures — temporarily derailed in-person education.
After just 11 days of schooling, K-3 students were sent home with little warning, and in many cases, little in the way of alternative lesson plans. Working parents were forced to find last-minute childcare solutions; many of them said the chaos was avoidable.
Leaders of Teton County School District No. 401, breaking from last year’s safety precautions, opted to start this school year without universal masking. The decision was mirrored by districts across Idaho and Wyoming, but it meant classroom COVID-19 exposures would spark automatic quarantines.
Student and staff absences were the driving force behind last week’s closure, with Superintendent Monte Woolstenhulme writing to parents Sept. 14 that the situation had become untenable.
“I recognize that this is difficult news,” he wrote. “We are doing the best we can, but cannot function as a school without staff and increasing student illnesses.”
The effect of quarantines extends beyond classrooms too; parents are often forced to miss work or use paid time off to care for their children. Employers, already short on workers, have already been forced to close or adjust hours to accommodate staff absences.
Quarantine concerns were expressed at school board meetings on both sides of Teton Pass — but with its universal mask mandate, Teton County, Wyoming took a critical step to prevent them, while its Idaho counterpart did not.
In Jackson schools, students and staff wear masks regardless of vaccination status. Robin Miller, a third grade teacher at Jackson Elementary School, said her children follow the protocols easily, without fuss.
“It’s just another rule they have to follow,” and as long as the procedures remain consistent, Miller said compliance comes easy.
In order to get Victor Elementary students back in classrooms, Principal Megan Christiansen announced last week her own mask mandate, separate from the district.
Superintendent Woolstenhulme, who was listed on the masthead for the announcement, told the News&Guide he helped Christiansen make the decision “in collaboration with our school district elementary admin-team.”
He did not elaborate further and declined to comment on whether he explicitly supports the mask mandate.
Christiansen did not respond to requests for comment, but several parents described a principal who was clearly exasperated.
“I was at the board meeting on [Sept. 13], and I saw the look of exhaustion on Megan’s face,” said Celeste Barlow, the mother of a Victor third grader.
Barlow previously opposed a mask mandate but said she understands the principal’s decision.
“I think that she is doing the very best that she can in the circumstance. Is it ideal? No. But I don’t know what other choice she has at this point.”
Barlow said her 8-year-old was excited to return (masked up) to Mrs. B’s class on Monday.
Christensen’s quasi-independent leadership on the matter would not have been necessary if her school board and superintendent had followed along with the Victor’s town mandate requiring universal masking.
The district, citing its own governmental autonomy, said it wouldn’t follow the August order, which was ratified by the Victor City Council and included schools.
Victor Mayor Will Frohlich told the News&Guide the schools’ dissent might be illegal, but added: “There’s bigger priorities right now than trying to fight this legal battle.”
“You don’t want to fight the school district, you want to try to come together,” he said.
Frohlich was hopeful Friday that Idaho’s transition to crisis standards of care, allowing hospitals statewide to ration health care due to a crush of patients, would prompt more school districts to “fall in line” and impose mask mandates.
“With the threat of overrunning our healthcare system, I think it’s becoming very real,” he said.
Frohlich also has a daughter in kindergarten at Victor Elementary and said he fully supports the principal’s decision.
“I’m glad Megan stepped up in showing true leadership and protecting her staff, teachers and students,” Frohlich said. “I think the more we come together as a community, the better chance we have of protecting the community’s health and safety.”
He and other parents pointed to last year’s more aggressive masking requirements, which spared the school from significant closures and maintained stability for the young students.
This year, with the contagious delta variant filling hospital beds across a resource-strapped Idaho, masks are once again needed to limit the spread of the coronavirus, Christiansen said in her letter.
“If we do not do this the cycle will continue, families will suffer, people will continue to get sick and our integrity and hard work will be diminished,” she wrote. “Masks are one simple step we can take to stay in school and stay healthy.”