Albany County School District No. 1’s school board will vote Wednesday at 5 p.m. on whether to follow Gov. Mark Gordon’s recommendation and close all schools for 10 days in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
If the board does vote to close K-12 schools, the current plan would be to reopen for classes on April 6.
Concerned about students who rely on their school for a daily lunch, school administrators have already made plans to continue offering “grab-and-go” lunches March 24-27 and March 30-April 3.
“(Sodexo) can’t immediately ramp up to 2,000 students, but they probably could within a few days, so we’ll have to see what the response from the community is,” ACSD No. 1 Business Manager Ed Goetz said during a Monday emergency meeting.
Under the district’s drafted plans, Laramie students would be able to pick up lunches 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Spring Creek Elementary and Linford Elementary.
Centennial Elementary and Rock River School also plan to distribute lunches.
The district should be fully reimbursed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the cost of the lunches, Goetz said, because the service will be offered “under the umbrella of the summer lunch program.”
USDA funds the Summer Food Service Program, which provides millions of meals to low-income school children during the summer.
If necessary, ACSD No. 1 can continue the lunch plan through at least the end of April with reimbursements guaranteed, Goetz said.
Based on the number of students who are eligible for “free-and-reduced” lunch plans near Spring Creek and Linford, those two schools are the only ones eligible under federal rules to have lunch costs reimbursed, Goetz said.
“It’s an open site and we’re not going to deny anyone, but we are going to focus on (students eligible for) ‘free-and-reduced,’” Goetz said.
While delivery service won’t be available by the time the lunch program starts Tuesday, Goetz said the district is hoping to find staff volunteers to deliver some meals to students who aren’t able make it to Linford and Spring Creek each day.
If the school board does vote to close schools, ACSD No. 1 plans to send emails to all parents of students eligible for free-and-reduced lunches with instructions for how to get meals.
While the vast majority of Wyoming school districts announced closures within 24 hours of the Sunday recommendation issued by Gordon and Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow, ACSD No. 1 has taken more time.
According to a press release from the two officials, their recommendation is “is not necessarily based on epidemiological best practices but is an attempt to allow schools and communities to prepare to operate in a way that mitigates community spread of COVID-19 and minimizes negative economic impacts locally and statewide.”
As of Monday, federal officials are urging all Americans not to gather in groups of 10 people or larger.
If schools weren’t to close, Yennie estimated that only about half of students would return to school next week.
During an emergency meeting held Monday, school board members were very concerned about the possible consequences for closing schools.
“I’m really concerned that we’re going to be impacting working families,” board member Lawrence Perea said. “I’m talking about people who are just making it, paycheck to paycheck. There aren’t too many people who can just sit at home and twiddle their thumbs. They’re going to have to find work. … We are the glue that holds a lot of families together for 9 months of the year.”
Board member Nate Martin said he agreed with the recommendation to close schools, but he also said this “incredible, potentially unworkable situation for many families” requires a greater public response on how to provide child care for parents who can’t take off work.
Even if child care could be provided, board member Mark Bittner noted that having students grouped into day care centers defeats the “social distancing” plea being made by health officials.
“What you’re probably going to find, is that some of the larger daycare centers will probably also close because of the recommendation to not have large groups of people,” Bittner said.
Health officials are urging closures of schools to help reduce the impacts of the outbreak’s peak on the country’s medical system.
But board members were left questioning the timing of the closure recommendation by state officials; after all, Albany County doesn’t have any confirmed COVID-19 cases and Anthony Fauci, an immunologist for the National Institutes of Health and leading figure in the country’s response to the outbreak, predicted on Tuesday that the outbreak won’t peak in the U.S. for another 45 days.
Acknowledging that some families will use the school closure to extend their spring break vacations, some board members are also skeptical that the schools’ closure will fulfill its purpose of ensuring “social distancing.”
“Kids are going to be kids, and this is going to be a three-week great vacation that I don’t think we’re going to recover from until next fall,” Perea said. “The financial and economic backlash of this is going to be stunning to our families.”
During Monday’s emergency meeting, board members voted 7-2 on an initial decision to close schools.
Board members described it as a “no-win” situation.
“We won’t know if we did too much but we will definitely know if we did too little,” board chair Janice Marshall said.
While employees won’t be on-call during the closure, Yennie said he hopes to get some employees to volunteer to help address some of the consequences of the closure.
“During this time, the community is going to need help with some other things,” he said.
If schools do close until April, administrators plan to continue monitoring the outbreak over the next few weeks to see if schools can reopen for all students April 6.
If not, the district may move to online classes for all students. ACSD No. 1 is also considering options for a “hybrid” model, in which some students who come back to school while most stay home and complete classwork online.
The board plans to take a final vote on the school closure Wednesday at 5 p.m.
In accordance with the federal guidance to stop all gatherings of 10 or more people, Yennie said in a Tuesday memo that only 10 people will be allowed in the room, and all others are instructed to watch the meeting via streaming. Yennie said that a link for streaming the meeting will be accessible via the ACSD No. 1 website by 4 p.m. Wednesday.
On Monday, the board urged stakeholders to email feedback about the planned closure.