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Natrona County schools reopen today
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Natrona County schools reopen today

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The playground at Lincoln Elementary School stands empty in July in Casper. Natrona County schools will reopen Wednesday for the first time since March.

For the first time since March 13, the vast majority of Natrona County students will be in class — in person — today

One hundred seventy-three days have passed since the last day of in-person learning, which came two days after the first confirmed coronavirus case in Wyoming and two days before the Natrona County School District announced it was following Gov. Mark Gordon’s recommendations to close.

In that time, health officials have documented nearly 3,900 cases of the virus in Wyoming. Forty-one Wyoming residents have died after contracting COVID-19.

District officials have worked since the closure on a plan to reopen the schools while limiting the virus’ spread and keeping students and staff safe.

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Masks will be mandatory for students and teachers who aren’t able to socially distance. Students will be directed to wash or sanitize their hands when they arrive and throughout the day. They’ll bring water bottles to school because drinking fountains can’t be used. And each night, students will bring home laptops or other technology so that the district won’t be caught flat-footed if schools must suddenly close again.

Not all students are heading back to the classroom. Around 900 of the school district’s 13,000 students decided to continue learning virtually for the semester. It’s possible that some or all of their peers could join them at some point during the semester. The district’s plans include options for hybrid learning or a full closure.

No one expects the schools to make it through a semester without cases, which have already been reported at other learning institutions around the state. Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow acknowledged that fact at a press conference last month when she said the state’s goal was to keep schools open for as long as possible.

The experience of the University of Wyoming demonstrates the challenge facing district officials in Natrona County. The university has mass tested roughly 12,000 students and staff as it prepares to reopen for in-person classes. But on Tuesday, a spate of new cases tied to off-campus gatherings prompted school officials to warn that more cases could result in a pause to the phased return.

Whether Natrona County schools will face similar challenges remains to be seen. That district’s months of work will be put to the test when school doors open sometime around 7:30 a.m. today.

Follow managing editor Brandon Foster on Twitter @BFoster91

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