"Keeping Schools Open Is Going To Be The Much Greater Challenge." Wyoming Students Return

Sep 14, 2020

In Cody, Park County School District Number 6 Superintendent Peggy Monteith said with all the uncertainty going on in the world, she was just happy to see kids climb onto a school bus on the first day of school?

"I stopped behind the bus with their red lights on and watched these little, little guys get on the bus with their masks. And I was an emotional mess by the time I got to the school because I was so happy to see them back on buses, but also so sad that they had to get on buses in masks," Monteith said. "What a world! It's turned upside down."

In Wyoming's 48 school districts, students are back in school one way or another, whether that's remotely, like all schools on the Wind River Reservation, or back in the classroom.

But with bringing kids and staff back together, there are concerns about the spread of COVID-19. That's why each district had to put together what the Wyoming Department of Education is calling Smart Start guidelines, or plans to reopen schools with safety measures and contingencies in case of spikes of the virus.

State Health Officer Doctor Alexia Harrist said each plan is specific to each district but schools have to have a couple of components factored in.

"The first one is making sure that if students and staff are sick that they are staying home," Harrist said. "And so, schools have done that in different ways, many involving asking the parents to check their students before the school day and keep them home and contact their health care provider if they have any symptoms that could be consistent with COVID-19. And that's a really important step."

Harrist said the other important measures include physical distancing, face coverings, and frequent handwashing.

But as schools have started reopening, a handful of positive cases have popped up. So far, cases have been identified in schools in at least 6 counties. The Wyoming Department of Health says there have been approximately 30 cases in schools over the past two and a half weeks

But each district has come up with its own plans for how to handle positive COVID-19 cases, including whether or not they want to tell you about it. Harrist said the Department of Health has left public notification up to districts, like they've done with long-term health facilities and other sectors.

"We believe that much of that information is better shared locally by districts or local health departments in a timely manner," she said.

If there is a positive case, health officials will get in touch with anyone determined to be a close contact, which is contact tracing.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow said when the Wyoming Department of Education was reviewing each district's reopening plans, communication strategies were a part of that.

"We went over that with a fine tooth comb, looking at everything from where are they meeting the health and safety protocols as lined out in the health orders? Did they have a mechanism for communicating and collaborating with their county health officer and how was that being communicated to the public?" Balow said.

The decision some are making is to not announce the cases to the school community or the public.

Campbell County is one of those districts. Local public health officials say they will notify those who have come in contact with a positive COVID-19 case. They also say for parents and students in Campbell County, no news is good news.

In Cody, they are taking a different approach. Superintendent Peggy Monteith said as of September 9, there are 5 cases in the school district. And they are telling the community about those cases.

"We think it's important to be very transparent with what's going on," she said. "If we're not, and that information gets out in a variety of ways that may not all be entirely accurate, folks are going to fill in the blanks with their own stories. And that can create some real challenges for us."

Monteith said they've worked out a plan with the Park County Public Health Department, principals and school nurses to make sure that students' privacy is still protected while getting that information out.

She adds she'd like to know the amount of cases occurring in schools statewide.

"It also helps us to know if in fact, what we're doing is making a difference. I think I would love to know how our plan stacks up against another district our size. And are we seeing the same kind of cases? Or is it different? Are there some things that we could be doing differently to make this better?" Monteith said.

State superintendent Jillian Balow said while the future is uncertain, they'll be ready to adapt.

"I've become fond lately of quoting Eisenhower, after Normandy. And he noted that 'Plans are worthless, but planning is invaluable.' And that's really what we're seeing." Balow said.

Clay Van Houten, an infectious disease epidemiology unit manager with the Wyoming Department of Health, said the numbers they are seeing so far in schools are not concerning and he's impressed by the way districts have handled the challenges so far.

"It's certainly not unusual or really concerning. I think we'll just keep a close eye on it and see if we see any transmission with the school or extra-curricular activities, those types of things," Van Houten said.

Balow said she's glad that the state has left a lot of the decisions up to local communities on how to handle this situation.

"This is the very best way to make decisions. They're data-driven. They're not based on reaction. They're based on the reality of what our community data says, our current health orders. And I continue to be proud of the leadership of both the local health agencies and local school boards," she said.

Balow said she's continuing to meet with school leaders to adapt plans as challenges arise.

"Opening schools proved to be the easy part of this. Keeping schools open is going to be the much greater challenge," she said.