Multiple Laramie High School teachers voiced their concerns Wednesday evening with Albany County School District No. 1’s reopening plan, the current version of which will give all students the option to return to school five days a week.
“I’m not in this business to be a martyr or a hero,” said Chris Sherwood, who teaches at the high school. He thought that the plan should do more to incorporate concerns about the health and safety of teachers.
An earlier version of the reopening plan had said that each middle and high school student would only attend school two or three days per week, so that there were fewer students in the building on any given day and social distancing would be easier.
Research has been publicized in recent days finding that older children, such as those in middle and high school, spread the coronavirus to a similar extent as adults.
Sherwood spoke at a virtual town hall hosted by Nate Martin, a member of the ACSD No. 1 school board, who listened and responded to the concerns of teachers and community members for two and a half hours.
Martin noted that this was not an official school board event, but that he would share what he heard with the rest of the board. More than 200 people watched the town hall live on Facebook at times, in addition to the speakers who participated on Zoom.
The full school board is set to vote on another version of the reopening plan next Thursday, June 30. The district will likely release an updated version of the reopening plan by next Monday, June 27, Superintendent Jubal Yennie told the Boomerang earlier this week.
The board is expected to vote upon the next version of the reopening plan. Whatever the board approves at that meeting will be sent to the Wyoming Department of Education for approval.
At the town hall Wednesday evening, Sherwood faulted the level of communication between the district and its teachers. He had found out about revisions to the reopening plan from the Boomerang, rather than from district leadership, he said.
Nichol Bondurant, a teacher at the high school, said that the current reopening plan does not do enough to keep students and teachers safe.
“I don’t think our community could stand to lose one employee or one single child,” Bondurant said.
She has personal experience with how dangerous the coronavirus can be, even when it is not fatal, she said. She was infected with the virus in the spring, and she was feverish for three weeks. She had no pre-existing conditions, and still uses an inhaler because of the lingering effects of the virus, she said.
Bryon Lee, a counselor at the high school, asked how a school could be safely at full capacity if restaurants in Laramie can only be at half capacity, and if the buses that bring students to school can only be at one-third capacity.
Additionally, there has not been enough guidance from the district about the protocol that will be in place if a high school student refuses to wear a mask, Lee said. It is so far unclear how much responsibility teachers will have to enforce the mask rules.
The original version of the plan, in which students would only attend two or three days per week to reduce crowding in the high school, seemed like a good compromise, Lee said.
Another common question from teachers was whether the district would be prepared to open safely by the planned start date: Aug. 26. More time might be necessary to procure enough personal protective equipment, such as masks, or to train teachers for a possible switch back to virtual education if cases spike, they said.
Children need to get back in the classroom, but the current plan feels rushed, said Teresa Robinson, a teacher at the high school who identified herself as part of a high-risk group.
Robinson has taught in-person driver’s education classes at a local school this summer, and the older students have sometimes resisted wearing masks, she said. She worried that even if they could all be convinced to wear masks, many students might have lower-quality masks, which would not prevent transmission of the virus.
“I have skin in the game, and I have been in the trenches,” Robinson said. She added that the district’s predictions of social distancing in schools seem unrealistic for her classroom at the high school.
Elementary school teachers who spoke were generally less concerned about the reopening plan. Both the original and current versions of the reopening plan said that all elementary school students would be able to come to school five days per week.
Younger children have worn their masks all day without significant resistance, said Kayleigh Kenik, a fourth-grade teacher at Linford Elementary in Laramie who has taught in-person classes this summer.
“The kids have been so great about wearing their masks,” she said.
The reopening plan should be amended to have students wear masks at all times during class, she said. The current plan would allow for them to take masks off when they are seated six feet apart in classrooms, including when they speak in class.
Martin said he received an email Wednesday which said the rule allowing students to remove their masks when they speak might be removed in the next version of the reopening plan.
The district will reevaluate the details of the mask policy before the next version of the reopening plan is released, Yennie told the Boomerang on Thursday.
“We continue to learn more about the effectiveness of face coverings,” Yennie wrote. “We should not discard scholarly research.”
Many parents and community members also commented on or asked questions about the district’s reopening plan at Martin’s town hall.
There is a necessary balancing act between safety and education that the district faces, but it needs to pay more attention to safety, said Mike Selmer. He lives in Laramie with his family, and two of his grandchildren attend local schools, he said.
In particular, he was concerned that the mask requirements in schools were not strong enough, he said. Scientists believe that masks are effective at limiting the spread of the coronavirus, and universal mask-wearing prevents asymptomatic carriers from unknowingly spreading the virus.
“Wearing a mask is not going to protect you if the one person who is contagious is not wearing a mask,” Selmer said. “People don’t tend to take a threat seriously until it hits them personally.”
Some people in Laramie have opposed rules that require students to wear masks, on the grounds that it should be a personal choice of students and their families.
Zach Iddings, who has two children who attend Linford Elementary, said that students and their families should be able to decide for themselves whether to wear a mask, so there should not be a mask requirement in schools, he said.
“Each family unit should be able to decide whether to wear masks for themselves,” Iddings said.
Medical experts have generally held that everyone in a room should wear a mask to prevent transmission, since masks are most effective at preventing transmission when they are worn by those who have the virus, including those who might not have symptoms but can still transmit the virus.
If a family chooses not to wear masks, their children would be more likely to unknowingly spread the virus to peers or teachers if they attend schools and become asymptomatic carriers of the virus.