Albany County School District No. 1’s school board tentatively voted 7-2 during an “emergency meeting” Monday evening to keep the district’s school closed until at least April 6.
However, the board-members could still conceivably undo that action on Wednesday during a “special meeting.”
Because board members convened for an “emergency meeting” on Monday, state statute requires them to ratify that decision at a second meeting.
ACSD No. 1 students are out on spring break this week, and Superintendent Jubal Yennie recommended not having students come back to school until April amid fear over the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Sunday, Gov. Mark Gordon and Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow asked for the closure of all K-12 schools until April.
“Evidence of community spread in Fremont County, two confirmed cases in Sheridan County, and pending tests from across the state have led us to this,” Balow said in a press release. “Wyoming has over 90,000 square miles where schooling is an essential function in each community - the decision is difficult.”
Since Sunday, that vast majority of K-12 superintendents announced they’d follow that recommendation.
Yennie said he wanted the input of his school board, but called for an emergency meeting because many stakeholders have told him they wanted an answer quickly. The board’s tentative vote leaves some uncertainty.
Board members Lawrence Perea and Karen Bienz voted against closing schools. Jason Tangeman voted in favor of Yennie’s recommendation on Monday but said he’s not sure how he’s going to vote Wednesday.
According to the press release issued by Gordon and Balow, the two officials’ 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.”
On Monday, President Donald Trump urged all Americans to avoid being in groups of 10 or larger, based advice from federal medical experts.
As of Monday evening, there were three publicly confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Wyoming, with none in Albany County.
Albany County Public Health Officer Jean Allias said that closing schools is a tested way to help reduce the impacts of a viral outbreak’s peak. However, evidence indicates schools should be closed 4-8 weeks for that to be effective, Allais said.
“The short-term closures aren’t going to be able to do that,” she said.
Allias was hesitant to give the school board a recommendation on whether to follow the recommendation of Gordon and Balow — which calls for just a three-week closure to go into effect immediately.
Some board members wondered if following the recommendation from state officials could mean the district could end up trying to reopen its doors just as the outbreak is hitting its peak in Albany County.
“Today I’m hearing from the surgeon general that we’re two weeks behind Italy in terms of the severity of this,” board member Nate Martin said. “Opening up schools (on April 6) and bringing kids back seems fanciful to me, like magical thinking.”
Under Yennie’s recommendation, the district would close its doors off, even to teachers, in the coming days. Custodial staff would then thoroughly clean the buildings. In the week before students are scheduled to come back April 6, the buildings would be cleaned again and staff would start being allowed back in.
Even under that recommendation, the schools could remain closed longer, and the district could start moving to online classes if the U.S. outbreak gets worse.
“We do have a plan at this point to do online learning,” Yennie said. “One of the things we’ve talked about, if we provide any online learning, we have to make sure it’s acceptable for everyone.”
It’s a lot easier for colleges to go online than school districts. In order to legally do it, the school district has make sure that the needs are also being met for special education students and others.
If that’s not possible to do all online, Yennie said the district could considering re-opening in April under a “hydrid” method, where some students come to school while most stay home and complete coursework online.
Regardless, Yennie said that district employees should continue to get paid their usual wages, including hourly and part-time employees.
“Our intent is not to have this harm anybody,” Yennie said.
Despite recommending the closure of schools, Balow and Gordon have yet to guarantee that the state won’t still require school districts to make up days at the end of the semester, Yennie said.
To get full enrollment funding from the state, school districts have to have students in school for at least 175 days each year.
If the state doesn’t waive that 175-day requirement this year, ACSD No. 1 would lose $5 million if it closed for 10 days without making those days up in June, according to Yennie.
If the school board does finalize plans on Wednesday to close schools for an extra 10 days, the district has made plans to continue offering lunches to those recipients on “free-and-reduced” lunch plans at a few schools.
Some board members were hesitant about signing off on the closure of schools until hearing from the community.
Board chair Janice Marshall urged ACSD No. 1 stakeholders to go to the district’s website and email all board members with feedback. ACSD No. 1 is currently exploring streaming options to stream the 5 p.m. Wednesday meeting, when a final decision will be made.
In voting against the closure, Perea said he wished there was some middle-ground — that some students could come to school others stayed home if their parents felt it necessary.
“I’m really concerned that we’re going to be impacting working families,” he said.