Albany County School District No. 1’s school board voted unanimously to close all schools until at least April 6.
However, it’s very possible that the closure of schools — at least in-person instruction — will be extended, unless the national COVID-19 outbreak unexpectedly subsides within weeks.
When the board took a preliminary vote on Monday, members were split 7-2.
However, Albany County Public Health Officer Jean Allias sent board members a letter Wednesday, recommending a 10-day closure after three COVID-19 cases were confirmed in neighboring Laramie County. Five cases were confirmed in Laramie County at press time Wednesday.
Those cancellations merit ACSD No.1 closing now, Allias said, because the President’s Coronavirus Guidelines for America, which cover the next 15 days, said schools should be closed even “in communities that are near areas of community transmission.”
“We do fall into that category,” Allias said.
Board member Beth Bear said it’s “naive to think that we do not have cases of this virus in Albany County already, and we’ll certainly uncover cases when families return home from travel after this week’s spring break.”
“By not closing schools, our teachers and staff would be put on the front line,” she said.
Since Monday’s vote, board members have also been inundated with emails from stakeholders, which board chair Janice Marshall said were entirely in support of closing schools.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever received any emails in my life as I have in the last three days,” board member Lawrence Perea said.
Board member Karen Bienz worried the feedback they’ve receiving might not reflect all parents’ concerns.
“I would guess that most of are from constituents that are able to handle the school closures,” she said. “I am concerned that we have not heard from the constituents who will have a more difficult time with this. Still, I will support this measure tonight based on the appeals we have heard.”
Superintendent Jubal Yennie and some board members expressed pessimism about the possibility of reopening school doors April 6.
“If we’re closing now, we’re more than likely looking at the rest of the year. … that’s the way the wind’s blowing,” board member Jason Tangeman said, adding that contingency plans need to be made for standardized testing.
Yennie said the schools have been on lockdown since Monday and that employees are expected to stay home.
“No one is supposed to be in those schools and principals will be getting and instruction that if we have ad hoc basketball games showing up in our gymnasiums, that there will be consequences,” Yennie said.
Even with the unanimous vote for closing schools, several board members raised serious concerns Wednesday about the other consequences of closing schools.
Board member Lawrence Perea, a social worker with the Department of Family Services, noted that “we have many students in our school district who live in dangerous homes.”
“They live in constant threat of physical or sexual abuse — in constant emotional or medical neglect,” he said. “They live with domestic violence and substance abuse by their caretakers. For these children, their one safe haven is their school … (and the staff) that see that child day in and day out and know something is wrong with that child.
“I will vote for this … with the recognition that we may be placing children in danger,” he said.
Others wondered if the local closure is premature, given the low number of Wyoming cases thus far.
Bienz said she feels the closure isn’t in-line with the Centers for Disease Control’s recommendations, which do not advise school closures in areas where there is no community spread.
“We are very clearly in column one,” she said. “There are areas of the nation that have advanced to column two and column there, and it would seem that the majority of our country’s communities are in column one, that everyone has jumped to the measures of column three.
“In my estimation, the only folks that will have somewhat of an employment guarantee 3-6 months from now will be those in the education and medical fields,” she said.
To make the Wednesday meeting accessible to the public while still encouraging “social distancing,” the board live streamed the meeting on YouTube.
The school board isn’t set to meet again until April 1. That meeting was originally scheduled as a work session, but the board voted Wednesday to upgrade it to a regular meeting so that, if necessary, votes can be taken on updates to the closure plan.
That meeting is also expected to be live streamed on YouTube.
During the closure, ACSD No. 1 plans to still offer breakfast and lunch “grab-and-go” meals for students on “free-and-reduced” lunch plans at five schools: Centennial Elementary, Rock River School, Linford Elementary, Spring Creek Elementary, and Laramie Middle School.
Yennie said that employees have also volunteered to drive meals to students who aren’t able to make it to one of those five schools.