Hundreds of students on the Wind River Reservation will begin the school year online. This week the Fort Washakie, Wyoming Indian and Arapahoe districts, as well as St. Stephen's Indian School, became the first in the state to officially opt for virtual instruction.
Since April, the reservation has been under a strict stay-at-home order that prevents gatherings of more than 10 people in confined spaces. In an announcement to staff on Monday, Superintendent Debra Smith of the Fort Washakie School District said the order prevented in-person classes.
"Due to this order, we are planning to start the school year in Level II, offering online, remote learning for students until the tribal order is lifted or changes to allow students on campus," Superintendent Smith wrote.
Wyoming Indian, Arapahoe and St. Stephen's schools will remain online for the entire first quarter regardless of the status of the stay-at-home order. Leaders in those districts came to their decisions after consulting with tribal leaders, community members, and medical professionals on the reservation.
"We did staff surveys, we did parent surveys, we reached out to everyone that we can to get information," said Michelle Hoffman, interim superintendent of the Wyoming Indian School District in Ethete.
Hoffman said that with COVID-19 still actively spreading throughout Fremont County, many students, parents and school staff expressed that they weren't comfortable with in-person instruction.
"The biggest thing from community members is that children are sacred, and we need to do everything we can to protect them," Hoffman said. "And the best way to do that right now is to curtail large gatherings of students."
Frank No Runner, superintendent of St. Stephen's Indian School, pointed to several recent deaths of tribal members who had contracted COVID-19. He said that students in his and other reservation districts are more likely to live in multi-generational homes where the virus could spread quickly to vulnerable elders.
"The elders here on the reservation, if they get sick and we lose them, we lose a lot of valuable cultural and traditional knowledge that can never be replaced. My goal is to protect that," No Runner said.
Joann Kaplan, a pediatrician at Wind River Family and Community Healthcare, consulted with leaders at Wyoming Indian and St. Stephen's on their re-opening plans.
"I think that they are really making the right decision. As sad as it is for kids who love school or who need other things from school, in a global sense, it's the best decision," Kaplan said, adding that the schools have comprehensive plans for eventually bringing students back to campus safely.
Fall sports have also been cancelled at Wyoming Indian, Arapahoe and St. Stephens schools.
The Riverton School District, which serves more Native students than any other district in Wyoming, will proceed with in-person classes in the fall.
Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Savannah Maher, at firstname.lastname@example.org.