Educators and officials in Natrona County are working diligently to keep public schools open amid the COVID-19 surge, which has left increasing numbers of students and staff in quarantine, Superintendent Mike Jennings said Thursday.
Nearly 100 students in the district were on a remote learning plan and a “large number” of students and staff were quarantining, Jennings said.
The number of substitutes available to the district has declined, but teachers and other staff are picking up additional duties and classes to help, he explained during a virtual press conference to announce the county’s mask order.
“I don’t want to see — we don’t want to see schools closed because that will have a dramatic impact on the ability of our community to function,” he said.
Jennings said he didn’t know exactly how many staff were in quarantine right now due to potential exposure to someone with COVID-19. More information would be released at a school board meeting set for Monday, he said.
But Jennings did acknowledge staffing has been a challenge as infections rise.
“We are being impacted,” he said. “At some point, where we can’t cover a classroom or classrooms within a building, we will have to shut it down. That is not the case right now. But that could happen in a week, it could happen in two weeks, it could happen in three weeks.
“But if we do our part in slowing the spread, then I believe that we will be able to keep schools open,” he said.
Schools reopened in Natrona County in early September. Officials instituted a mask rule and schools built in safeguards, including partitions and additional hand-washing requirements, to slow the virus’s spread.
Health officials, including County Health Officer Dr. Mark Dowell, have complimented the schools for those steps. Still, the spread within the community has resulted in higher numbers of sick students and staff — enough that the district announced recently that it could no longer provide daily updates on case counts within the school community.
Instead, they switched to weekly updates, the most recent of which indicated there were 384 students and 74 staff in quarantine. That update was released Nov. 13. A new one is expected Friday.
The switch was criticized by the president of the Natrona County Education Association earlier this month. Dirk Andrews said teachers needed better transparency and communication from the district amid the surge.
Andrews also spoke to the increasing demands teachers were under as more students and staff quarantined.
“The staff in this district are drowning, and we’re begging for your support,” Andrews said.