The Colter Elementary School child care program ended before it started.
Teton County School District No. 1 announced Thursday night that it had canceled the planned reopening of Colter, a measure that aimed to provide a supervised environment for elementary school-aged children of working families.
“Unfortunately, as the very detailed planning of this program progressed, we simply do not have the staffing required to meet the requests and the requirements,” the district wrote in a letter to families. “Therefore, out of concern for the safety and well-being of our students and staff, we will not be offering this service to TCSD families.”
The plan was for each classroom to accommodate eight students and one staff member. Staff were to be required to wear masks and stick to a sanitation routine, but masks were not required for children, which concerned employees and school board members.
District information coordinator Charlotte Reynolds had previously told the Jackson Hole Daily that the district planned to follow Wyoming Department of Health guidelines for child care facilities, but that it couldn’t guarantee 6 feet of social distancing as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Teton County District Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell and State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist had approved the idea, but in the end, concerns about safety proved too much for district trustees, along with other technicalities.
The paraprofessionals and specials teachers who would have been in the classrooms with kids would have inevitably worked with students under the adapted learning plan, the document guiding education during the pandemic crisis. That undermined the school district’s initial application as a child care center.
Wyoming schools are allowed to reopen in a limited capacity before June 1 to serve certain kids who need more academic help, like special education students. But opening for nearly 200 kids, even if they are working under a distance-learning plan, didn’t fit existing orders.
“We didn’t technically fall under the day care exception or technically under a school definition with the exception,” Superintendent Gillian Chapman said during a Friday afternoon video update.
Precautions taken for staff safety also made reopening untenable. The district’s original plan to use paraprofessionals and specials teachers was intended to allow regular classroom teachers to continue to work from home with their classes. That arrangement avoided any perception that the kids in the child care program would be receiving a better educational experience than others. But the district has a limited number of paraprofessionals and specials teachers.
Due to the virulent nature of the coronavirus, Chapman said, the district gave staff the chance to use leave to opt out of the program. Employees who have compromised immune systems or who live with someone who does, as well as those who were simply uncomfortable with the arrangement, were allowed to ask to not participate.
The number of employees left after that was too small to run the program effectively.
“In the end, it came down to numbers,” Chapman said.
The effect of the program’s cancellation is simple on one hand. Students will remain at home for the rest of the school year, which runs through June 12. During the final week of the term, families will be asked to return materials like iPads or hotspots they used to make distance learning work.
Parents will also be given an opportunity to grab any items their children may have left at school back in March when the buildings closed down.
The consequences of the program closing remain to be seen. District officials had pitched opening Colter as essential to helping the valley’s economic recovery. The logic was that parents needed somewhere safe to send their children during the day so they could return to work.
Judging from the 200 or so applications the district received for the program, parents agreed. Now some will have to decide between working or leaving their kids at home unattended, something school board Trustee Janine Teske alluded to during Wednesday’s board meeting while voicing support for reopening Colter.
“People are being told to go back to work,” she said. “We will have K-5 students unsupervised. That’s my fear.”