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Teachers, parents question school reopenings

By Angus M. Thuermer Jr., WyoFile

As parents, students, administrators and district employees nervously eye the reopening of Wyoming schools under coronavirus pandemic rules, many are uncertain that safety plans will protect them and their communities.

Top state officials including Gov. Mark Gordon, State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist and Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow are working to ensure plans are appropriate for schools. Balow is reviewing each of the plans for Wyoming’s 48 school districts for conformance to her Smart Start guidance.

Most districts anticipate opening to in-school classes under a “Tier 1” scenario, Kari Eakins, the education department’s chief policy officer said at a Wyoming Public Media virtual forum last week. Tier 1 offers mitigation measures that place responsibilities on parents — who, among other things, are asked to screen their children for symptoms before each school day.

There are no federal or state orders that require school testing and contact tracing. There’s no Wyoming requirement for temperature-taking at school building entrances, or mask-wearing throughout buildings.

Meantime, Harrist’s existing order for schools — the statewide authority on the issue — says face masks “shall” be worn in schools where 6 feet of separation can’t be maintained. Superintendents appear satisfied with the program, said Gov. Mark Gordon, who participated in a conference call with them last week.

He dismissed a notion they harbored worries. “I feel very confident our schools are in good hands,” he said at a press conference.

There’s unease nevertheless. Of teachers responding to a Wyoming Education Association survey this summer, 17% said they were considering not returning to their jobs.

Teachers worry that administrators didn’t take their concerns into account, aren’t requiring stringent enough mask use and are relying on parents’ assessments of students’ health, said Grady Hutcherson, president of the association. There aren’t nurses in each school, and teachers are being overworked and not provided with appropriate protective equipment, he said.

“It definitely is an issue and a concern,” Hutcherson said of the worries.

In Albany County District 1 the best practice would be for “all learning [to] be virtual online,” members of a 300-strong ad-hoc coalition of parents and others wrote school board trustees. Short of online-only education, Albany County for Healthy & Safe Schools demands better schoolroom ventilation, more custodial staff, PPE, testing and scientific justifications for policies, according to the group’s letter to officials.

48 separate plans

Balow is reading each of the 48 districts’ plans and offering revisions, said Linda Finnerty, communications director at the education department. Districts themselves select whether their communities are ready for Tier 1 openings, in-person curricula that offer students a virtual-learning option; Tier 2, a hybrid of in-school and virtual-classroom instruction; or Tier 3, which is entirely online.

Several districts, including ones in Teton and Fremont counties, are opting not to have students return to schools under the least-restrictive Tier 1. Instead, four districts on the Wind River Indian Reservation will begin with remote-learning-only Tier 3 instruction, according to tribal postings and news reports. Teton County anticipates a hybrid Tier 2 system in which there will be a combination of in-school and remote instruction.

Scenes like this one from Natalie Lyon’s third grade class at John Colter Elementary school in Jackson in 2017 may not be seen for a while. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

In other districts, Balow has apparently pointed out shortcomings in Tier 1 plans, recommending they conform to Harrist’s statewide schools order. For Fremont County District 1 in Lander, for example, the initial plan to use face coverings “to the greatest extent possible,” fell short, according to a message Superintendent Dave Barker wrote to parents.

“Face coverings are required when physical distancing can not [sic] be maintained,” he wrote Friday, superseding his earlier statement. That comports with Harrist’s current statewide order for schools.

Although that order expires on Aug. 15, many officials believe it will be extended, Finnerty said.

Education officials do not have the authority to require that students have their temperature taken before entering a building, she said. The Wyoming High School Activities Association, which oversees school sports, wrote that schools “should endeavor to implement” screening including a temperature check for students participating in activities and sports.

Screening requires checking off boxes on a form, according to the association’s plan. One box requires a yes or no answer under the column heading “Temperature above 100.4.” Screenings would occur even before workouts, but there’s no mention of the use of any kind of a thermometer.

Parents, teachers and other employees need to look up their district’s individual plans, Eakins said.

“Right now, it’s looking like most schools are really looking at, especially at the secondary level … things like temperature-taking and checklists in the morning for parents before they send kids into school,” DOE policy officer Eakins said at the virtual forum. She elaborated, saying “even at the districts that are thinking of doing some temperature-taking, sometimes [temperature-taking is] limited to staff, sometimes it’s limited to older students or students involved in additional sports and activities.”

Parents worry…

Back-to-school comes amid troubling and sometimes conflicting reports about community spread, kids effectiveness as disease carriers and new questions about pediatric susceptibility to COVID-19.  Georgia’s North Paulding High School closed soon after students returned Aug. 3, due to an outbreak and there was a similar incident in Israel.

The New York Times estimated that a Teton County school of 500 (the Jackson Hole High School had almost 700 students last school year) would see nine people with COVID-19 enter the institution a week if it opened to in-person teaching. The early closure of summer classes at Jackson Hole Middle School “because of a COVID-19 case” buttressed the need for caution.

Likely adding to uncertainties is a new report by the Centers for Disease Control that says, “children of all ages are susceptible” to COVID-19 and that they “might play an important role in transmission.” A warning from White House Coronavirus Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx that the widespread virus is now infecting people in rural areas raises another red flag for the least-populated state in the nation. Resistance to public health orders by politicians remains, however, including in Goshen County where commissioners passed a resolution encouraging citizens to “refrain from any county-level virus-related mandates concerning individual health-care decisions.”

Political motive permeates Albany County District 1 school decisions, said Matt Stannard, the parent who started a Facebook group that morphed into the Albany County for Healthy & Safe Schools group. “Many of us felt like this has been a political push, not a scientific push,” he said of the district’s plans.

Although district parents can opt for virtual learning, even though the school will begin the year under in-school, in-person Tier 1 protocols, “not everyone can use that option equally,” he said.

“My position is that if there is one parent who is dropping their child off at school saying, ‘I am terrified but I don’t have a choice because I have to go to work, I’m doing this out of economic necessity,’ that’s unacceptable,” Stannard said. “It’s really just a way of saying ‘some of you will have to throw your kids into this petri dish and some of you won’t.’”

The father of three school-aged children, Stannard said the group also wants clear descriptions of disciplinary plans.

“My kid says the same kid who’s tripping me in the hall every day is the one who is going to say, ‘I’m violating social distancing, what are you going to do about it?’” Stannard said. “Do you get an anti-masker family whose kid got suspended? Then things are going to get interesting.”

WyoFile did not receive a response to a request for comment from the district’s administration.

…So do teachers

The Education Association, which says it has more than 6,300 teachers and other employees as members, has been trying to look at as many school-opening plans as possible, Hutcherson said.

“Unfortunately, there are … districts where the plans were developed from the administrative level — top down,” he said. “Those plans that had the least amount of input from teachers are the same plans that have the greatest concern about what is in the plan.”

Fremont County School District #1 teacher Julie Calhoun and paraprofessional Stephanie Harris hand out bagged free lunches in front of Gannett Peak Elementary School in Lander on March 27, shortly after schools across the state closed. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

The association, and others, are worried about students who might not have access to on-line learning or who rely on schools for food, Hutcherson said. “Sadly, it really shined a bright light on the inequities that exist, whether it’s connectivity and devices, or support from adults at home,” he said.

There’s a lack of funds to accomplish necessary tasks, WEA believes. “We definitely need increased funding and more money [for] the basic attempt to try and mitigate COVID-19,” Hutcherson said. “We are in desperate need of that.”

Worries extend to nursing. “There’s a significant portion of schools that don’t have a full-time nurse in their buildings,” Eakins said. Wyoming school districts employ a total of 188 nurses, according to information Hutcherson provided.

The DOE counted an average daily membership of 91,469 students in all Wyoming schools during the 2018-19 school year. Using those figures, each nurse would be responsible for an average of about 486 students.

Hutcherson taught second grade in Goshen County’s Torrington for 24 years before recently retiring to take his WEA post, he said.

“All it would take is a family to head over to Scottsbluff” — about 25 miles away across the Nebraska border — for the myth of rural insulation from the virus to be shattered. What would happen to a classroom if an instructor were quarantined, he wondered?

“If there is a teacher who is not feeling well or has some of the symptoms, in my mind it would be pretty difficult for a sub being really excited or wanting to go into that classroom,” he said.

In Park County, high school journalism teacher Erika Quick said uncertainty is the hallmark of the times. The mother of two young girls, she’s generally comfortable about her own and her family’s health because of her age.

Older teachers, however, and some others may be more vulnerable. “I’m nervous for [the health of] people I work with,” she said. “I try to stay positive, but I would say it’s hard not to be scared.

“We love our jobs, we want to be good teachers,” Quick said. “I just hope everyone can be flexible, adaptable, understanding.”

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