The Natrona County school board voted unanimously April 27 to keep its 28 schools closed through the duration of the spring semester and finish out the year using the distance learning methods it implemented in recent weeks.
The district, like all others across Wyoming, has been closed for more than a month in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. Wyoming’s 48 districts were scheduled to remain that way until at least last Thursday, though new, modified orders were issued last week. In any case, the timing would leave only a few weeks in most districts’ spring semester; in Natrona County, the academic year begins and ends later than most, but even still, a May re-opening would have left the district with four or five weeks of in-person instruction even as the virus continues to spread.
The board did direct the district to look into allowing certain populations — like students on special education plans or who are pursuing vocational training — back into schools in the coming months, though any plan to that effect would require the approval of the county health department and its officers.
It remains unclear, from a state level, whether all districts will voluntarily move to remain closed physically. Already, a handful of districts — Albany and Campbell counties, as well as the Green River-based Sweetwater County district — have decided to stay closed.
Under revised public health orders released Tuesday, schools cannot hold classes until at least May 18. However, individual counties may apply for exemptions that would allow districts there to reopen.
The University of Wyoming, as well as the state’s community colleges, had previously announced they would ride out the spring term virtually.
For most of April, Natrona County’s 13,300 students have been educated via distance learning — video lessons and digital homework. A minority of other students have been receiving paper packets out of one form of necessity or another.
The vote in Natrona County is not particularly surprising. Health officials here have urged against opening anything too rapidly; in late March, for instance, the county’s health officer told the board that he couldn’t “see” schools opening by late April. Board member Dave Applegate said earlier this month that the virus’ impact would likely be felt throughout the summer and into the fall, a sentiment echoed by the governor and others.
Indeed, the bulk of the discussion at Monday night’s board meeting was about re-opening in the fall. It’s difficult to say how the virus’ spread — or the wisdom about how to slow it — will have evolved then, but several board members expressed resistance to keeping schools closed come September.
“I don’t think shutting our schools down a second time and losing a year for our kids is even a remote possibility,” trustee Kevin Christopherson said. “What we’re suffering right now is a lot worse than kids getting sick.”
He added that “virtual learning is not working; kids are not learning right now.” He walked back that comment and apologized for it later but said from what he’d heard, students had been critical of it.
Fellow trustee Debbie McCullar agreed that “virtual learning is not optimum,” though she agreed that school should remain closed this year.
The board brainstormed ideas about opening schools to those willing to return and keeping virtual learning in place for others. They talked about allowing some kids in over the summer as a test. But much of these decisions are not entirely in the board’s hands; both the state — in the form of health officer Dr. Alexia Harrist — and the county can institute orders that keep buildings closed.
“I do think there’s a bumpy road ahead,” chairwoman Rita Walsh said. But she added that “we’re going to have a really good plan to have our kids back in school.”
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