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NCSD relaxes COVID protocols as child COVID cases rise

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First Day

Orin Smith, the ESP teacher at Park Elementary School, works as a crossing guard on Sept. 1 on Center Street in downtown Casper. The Natrona County School District has relaxed its COVID-19 protocols and is no longer releasing case data.

The Natrona County School District will no longer report student and staff COVID-19 case numbers and has shortened the required quarantine period for those testing positive, effective in the new year.

The changes, announced on the district’s website last week, come as local health officials say they’re seeing an increase in COVID cases and hospitalizations among children in Natrona County.

Every other week during the fall, the district provided updates on the number of students and staff members at each campus who were isolating or quarantining due to COVID-19. Much of that reporting, district spokesperson Tanya Southerland said, came from the number of requests for remote learning.

Now, as CDC guidelines have shortened isolation and quarantine periods, the district is following suit.

“Reporting a positive is not a requirement, however, we ask individuals to follow the guidance provided to them by health officials in order to assist us in maintaining a safe and healthy learning environment for all,” Southerland said in an email Monday.

For most of the pandemic, Wyoming had seen very few cases of COVID among children, said Dr. Andy Dunn, chief of staff at Wyoming Medical Center. Now, Dunn says those cases have “very, very exponentially increased.”

“This is truly our first huge wave of pediatric…cases and hospitalizations, unfortunately,” Dunn said on Monday.

Just under 7% of eligible children ages 5 to 11 in Natrona County are vaccinated against COVID-19, according to data from the Wyoming Department of Health. Around 30% of those aged 12 to 17 have been vaccinated.

Other parts of the country with more concentrated populations have already seen pediatric cases of coronavirus doubling by the week. Dunn and other health officials have said that Wyoming can expect to see its trends lag a few weeks behind more urban areas.

Under the district’s new policies, students will have to make up any work they miss if they’re out of school for five or fewer days. If they exceed that period, or if a parent notifies the school that the student will be out longer, they can begin remote learning.

Those who return to school after five days without symptoms are expected to wear a mask for an additional five days out of caution, though masking remains optional across the district.

Dirk Andrews, president of the Natrona County Education Association, said that the changes to remote learning are likely to take some stress off of teachers.

“They’re scrambling to make it work all day,” Andrews said, “and you never know who’s going to be out, it changes day to day.”

The most recent data available shows that COVID cases in Natrona County schools were on the decline before the district’s winter break. In the last two weeks of school in 2021, 15 students and six staff members reported testing positive for the coronavirus. During the two-week period prior, there had been 24 students and eight staff with COVID.

With most new cases in the state now presumed to be omicron, communities are seeing an uptick in case numbers but are finding the cases to be less severe compared to those caused by other variants.

Some school staff would like to see more stringent COVID procedures, Andrews said on Monday, while others are glad to see the policies relaxed.

“We’re still monitoring cases…without having numbers reported, I’m not sure if we’re growing or not,” Andrews said. “I would assume we’re having a little more, but that’s an assumption. It’s more just that the community is seeing more.”

The Casper-Natrona County Health Department has already seen a jump in demand for vaccinations and testing since Jan. 3, department director Anna Kinder said on Monday.

Follow city and crime reporter Ellen Gerst on Twitter at @ellengerst.

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