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As Casper school officials plan, health officer tells them to prepare for extended closures
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As Casper school officials plan, health officer tells them to prepare for extended closures

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School Board

Natrona County school board members listen to comments from the public during an October 2017 meeting. Schools in the district are not expected to reopen on time.

Class in Natrona County has been out for nearly two weeks, and schools are tentatively scheduled to reopen April 6. But educators and administrators are preparing for the very real possibility — even probability — that no such grand reopening is on the horizon.

“If you want my gut feeling based on the numbers that are going up right now, I can’t see — and this is just one opinion, please, I’m just trying to help — I can’t see us in a month necessarily being able to go back to school,” Dr. Mark Dowell, the county’s health officer and an infectious disease physician, told the school board in a teleconference Wednesday night. “I can’t see it. But I don’t know that for a fact.”

“It looks like — from what I hear tonight — we’re probably not going to open on (April 6),” added board member Kevin Christopherson.

There have been six cases of COVID-19 in Natrona County, though health officials here say they’re all tied to one of two separate clusters and that there is no “community spread” — transmission that can’t be traced to a singular cause or source.

Health officials said in a statement that’s evidence that the “social distancing” and other measures put into place are working.

But it’s not the case everywhere in Wyoming. In Teton County, for instance, officials have said there is evidence of community spread.

Schools across the state have been closed since Gov. Mark Gordon, in tandem with the state’s top educator, recommended they be shuttered for two weeks. In those two weeks, the state has gone from a handful of cases to 57, with a nearly 100 percent increase in fewer than 48 hours.

Whether schools here will stay closed remains to be seen. Gordon told media earlier this week that he’s having discussions about schools and will likely issue more guidance in the coming days.

In a 30-minute talk with the school board, Dowell noted that younger people generally do OK with the novel coronavirus, which causes the respiratory illness COVID-19. But the reason school closures are important isn’t necessarily because of the danger to the children but because of the more pressing and mortal threat to grandparents and older parents.

Dowell also shattered any illusions that Wyoming would somehow be insulated from a virus that’s spread like wildfire across the country in a short period of time.

“If you look at what’s going on nationally, we’re at the beginning,” he said. “And there’s no reason to think that we’re somehow insulated in a bubble. ... We’re not alarmist; we’re just up to date.”

The doctor stressed that any decision about reopening schools will not be a snap judgment. Because symptoms can appear 14 days after a patient is infected, there’s necessarily a lag time in good data on who’s infected and how. Only by looking long-term and tracking when cases go down as a trend rather than a flash in the pan can sound public health policy be made, he said.

“There isn’t anybody in the epidemiology world or in infectious diseases that is suggesting that we’re anywhere near loosening anything up in the near future,” he said. “It would be disastrous to not follow that curve very carefully and err on the cautious side rather than find out we loosened stuff too soon and had a lot of bad disease occur.”

With Dowell’s warnings in mind, the board shifted to discussing plans for continuing to educate students. While a wave of the wand from Gordon can close schools, it has implications: Seniors trying to graduate and head off to college can’t do so unless they meet statutorily defined standards.

A quarter’s worth of instruction lost is not a trivial consequence. Should the schools shift and work through the summer — assuming things clear up, far from a certainty — then districts face the difficult problem of paying for staff for several extra weeks. Verba Echols, the Casper district’s top human resources administrator, told the board that all staff are getting paid now.

The district is preparing to move to distance or virtual education; it sent out a survey recently to gauge the technological accessibility of its more than 13,000 students. Officials repeatedly stressed that they’re actively working to continue educating students however they can.

“For those families that that is not an option, how do we continue learning in more of a traditional format with pickup and drop-off elements or support with paper-pencil, or more traditional means?” said Walt Wilcox, the district’s top academic and instructional officer. “We’ll have to facilitate both models in moving forward, hoping we have a large majority.”

Wilcox added that districts across the state have been told by state leaders that it’s up to them to be prepared to adapt to what comes next.

“’Be prepared’ has been said multiple times over the last three-day meetings,” he said.

The district’s food services, which Echols said had a day’s notice, has been doling out food at several sites across the county to anyone 18 and under. Homeless students have received support at Roosevelt High.

Schools have not been the only part of Wyomingites’ daily lives that has been impacted by COVID-19. Most public spaces have been closed, and state officials have pleaded with everyone to stay inside and not hoard supplies. But the disruption caused by the school closures is perhaps the most far-reaching: There are more than 93,000 students statewide, with thousands more staff.

“I know for the community, I know when I think about this, I think about how this crisis has challenged our health, our education of our children and our economy,” board member Dave Applegate said near the end of Wednesday’s 90-minute meeting. “... It’s apparent from what you presented tonight that the district, and I’d include the board in that, remain committed to educating all of the children of Natrona County.”

“What I took away from it is, we’re going to have school (April 6), one way or the other,” Christopherson said. “So tell your kids we’re not just going to blow off the rest of the year.”

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Education and Health Reporter

Seth Klamann joined the Star-Tribune in 2016 and covers education and health. A 2015 graduate of the University of Missouri and proud Kansas City native, Seth worked for newspapers in Milwaukee and Omaha before coming to Casper.

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