During a wide-ranging, sometimes contentious, nearly four-hour school board meeting Wednesday, board members settled the questions parents and kids have been asking for months: Most students will not return to school buildings before the start of summer break.
Following guidance from Gov. Mark Gordon that schools should remain closed until June 1, the Teton County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees reached a consensus that instruction will continue under the adapted learning plan for the rest of the year.
With the final day of school set for June 12, school board members seemed in lockstep on the notion it wasn’t worth reopening buildings for just a few days of learning in the face of massive uncertainty about the coronavirus pandemic.
“I definitely think our efforts now need to be focused on next fall,” Trustee Alan Brumsted said.
Though several parents have written the board imploring it to reopen schools, trustees’ hands are tied in part by the state recommendations.
But the governor’s latest direction about COVID-19 precautions allows for many businesses to reopen in time for the summer tourist season, and parents will soon begin to return to work. That presents a challenge for families with no place to send their children.
The school district has set plans to reopen Colter Elementary School as a quasi-child care facility to help parents of elementary school students who are returning to work or who have been working during the crisis. However, the plan seemed in jeopardy Wednesday night when several board members raised concerns over student and staff safety.
“This is unconscionable,” Trustee Kate Mead said of the plan.
She and Trustee Annie Band in particular said not requiring students to wear masks risked spreading the virus quickly. Band also took issue with tasking the district’s lowest-paid employees, the paraprofessionals, with working face-to-face with students while most teachers continue to work from home.
Initially, the plan to reopen Colter was not on the board’s agenda, just in a report from Superintendent Gillian Chapman, but upon hearing the report, trustees felt compelled to bring it to a vote.
Band referenced recent national reports, like one from The New York Times, about the sometimes-fatal syndrome children can develop if they contract the virus. Kids generally have milder cases of COVID-19 and fewer hospitalizations from the virus than at-risk populations, but Band said she feared unidentified vectors by which the virus could be passed on to staff and brought home to their families.
Mead focused mostly on the risk to staff members.
“I think the school district is making a terrible recommendation by this day care project,” she said. “I am not willing to throw our employees under the bus.”
Other trustees weighed the impact that reopening Colter could have on the community at large. Parents who don’t have supervision for their children may not be able to go back to work, which would hamper economic recovery and force some to make hard decisions.
“People are being told to go back to work,” Trustee Janine Teske said in support of the Colter plan. “We will have K-5 students unsupervised. That’s my fear.”
In the end, the board upheld the plan by a 4-3 vote, with Brumsted, Mead and Band opposed. That means some students will head to Colter on Monday.
Chapman told the board the school on High School Road has capacity for 180 students under the plan approved by Teton District Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell and State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist. That allows for no more than eight students per classroom. With applications in for more than 200 students, the district used a prioritization process to help families of essential workers first.
While the changes Gordon announced Monday allow for groups of up to 25 starting Friday, Chapman told the board Wednesday night that she didn’t know whether the district would increase the number of students or maintain the 180-student limit.
With the Colter reopening squared away, trustees returned their attention to the rest of the school year. Jackson Hole High School Principal Scott Crisp told the board that student participation and attendance, which had been strong in the early days of the adaptive learning plan, has dropped off in recent weeks.
Since the Colter reopening is for only some elementary school students, the rest of the elementary students and all middle and high school students will stay at home for the rest of the term.
Chapman said staff checks in regularly with individual students to determine what kind of support they can offer.
Given that the adapted learning plan may continue in some form over the summer and perhaps into fall, school board members see the next few weeks as crucial for developing the systems to keep kids engaged and successful.
“We can use that time to get those kids who are kind of falling through the cracks,” Brumsted said. “That’s a really good focus at this point as we look forward to the fall.”