Teton County kids won’t be back in the classroom this fall, at least not full time.
COVID-19 numbers have decreased recently but are still much higher than in places that successfully reopened schools.
At Friday’s community update, Teton County School District No. 1 Superintendent Gillian Chapman said that in light of the numbers, schools will open under the district’s “hybrid” model, which includes a mix of in-classroom time and distance education.
“We’re facing the reality that, given the conditions in our community, the prudent approach is to limit the number of students assigned to a classroom, to limit the number of students in the building,” she said.
What exactly that means is unclear.
Principals are just returning from summer break, so they will quickly develop plans for their individual schools based on factors that include student age and the number of families that have requested distance learning. They will present their plans to the district board of trustees at its monthly meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday.
School district administrators have worked with public health officials to determine the safest way to conduct education come Sept. 1. They had hoped to implement face-to-face instruction that looked similar to what a typical school year looks like, stating in the Smart Start reopening plan that students would be in classrooms when the first-period bells rang.
But the COVID-19 pandemic looks different from when Chapman and her staff authored that plan. Case numbers have risen in the past few weeks, cresting about a week ago at more than 50 new daily cases per 100,000 people.
Those numbers have caused public health officials to rethink the prudence of filling classrooms. Teton District Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell was unable to attend the community update, but he sent a letter outlining his position that Mayor Pete Muldoon read.
“After much discussion and consideration, neither I nor other staff at the Health Department can comfortably recommend reopening schools to full, in-person learning until caseloads decrease,” Riddell wrote.
Communities around the world, particularly in Europe, have reopened schools without massive upticks in communitywide coronavirus numbers. In his letter, Riddell cited Denmark, Germany, France and the Netherlands.
Those countries had new daily case rates no higher than 2.6 per 100,000 people as of Aug. 4, while New Zealand and Australia had rates of less than 0.1 per 100,000. In contrast, Teton County’s rate that day was 40.2 per 100,000.
“It is my desperate hope that in the coming months more data will become available with which to refine our recommendations,” Riddell wrote.
Though Teton County’s rate doesn’t resemble that of those countries, it has diminished substantially. According to the Harvard Global Health Institute, the county’s rate Friday was 27.4 per 100,000 residents. The institute rates anything above 25 per 100,000 as in the “red zone,” a threshold that it says should trigger business closures.
Given the steep decline in the rate over the past week, Teton County is on pace to drop out of the red zone in coming days if case numbers remain low.