School in the time of COVID

For those of us living in Evanston, the start of the 2020-21 school year is a little more than five weeks away, and every parent, student, teacher and staff member is likely wondering what exactly that school year is going to look like in the age of COVID-19.

The Wyoming Department of Education recently released its Smart Start guidance document for school districts to utilize in planning for school reopening, requiring each district to use it for reference in developing detailed plans to be submitted to the state by Aug. 3. I’ve read through that document in its entirety, more than once.

I also attended via Zoom videoconferencing the most recent Uinta County School District No. 1 board meeting on Monday, July 13, during which I hoped to hear some specific details on how the district planned to safely reopen schools next month. I’m frustrated those specific details weren’t very — well — specific. 

To be clear, I desperately want my kids to return to school next month. I want all kids to be able to return to school next month. My own have struggled with missing friends and the classes and activities they love.

I recognize there are risks involved with virtually any activity at the present time, so I’m not asking for guarantees my kids won’t get sick with COVID, or anything else, while at school. I am, however, expecting that the school district will make every effort to minimize those risks to our kids, our teachers and staff and, by extension, other household members and, really, the entire community.

Throughout the most recent meeting, school board members and district administration repeatedly said the district would meet all requirements in the Smart Start guidance document and many of the recommendations. Unfortunately, having read it multiple times, I’m not very reassured by those requirements. The more detailed and specific information is found in the recommendations and considerations.

With all due respect to board members and district administration, who undoubtedly care about the well-being of our students, I have a whole lot of questions that really need to be addressed.

• First, when will a draft of this plan be released for parents to review? Parents, especially those with high-risk kids or other family members, need time to decide if they’re going to send their kids back to school based on the information contained in the plan.

• Will the board/district have a specific email address or other location where parents can submit feedback, questions or concerns?

• At Monday’s meeting, it was emphasized that reliance on parents to screen their children for symptoms of COVID-19 every single morning and keep kids home if they have any of those symptoms was going to be one of the primary pillars of the plan. Does this mean the district will be waiving attendance policies for students for the upcoming school year? What happens when (not if, because it’s a given not all parents will do this) parents don’t comply and send symptomatic kids to school?

• The example contained in the Smart Start guidance document suggests that students should be kept home if they or anyone else in the household are symptomatic. Will the district be asking parents to keep students home if anybody else at home is symptomatic?

• It was also emphasized at Monday’s meeting the district has a generous leave policy and any staff member who tests positive for COVID-19 will be covered for any 14-day isolation period. What will the policy be for students and/or staff who are not positive but who have been exposed to a positive case and have been told by public health officials to quarantine for 14 days? Will Zoom video conferencing be available for teachers and students who aren’t ill but are under orders to stay home?

• What is the policy if the same staff member or student is exposed on multiple occasions and ordered to quarantine multiple times throughout the year?

• What about students and teachers who haven’t been exposed but have symptoms and go get tested and then have to stay home until test results return? What if that happens multiple times with the same individual?

I myself have had symptoms included on a list of COVID symptoms (which includes a huge spectrum of symptoms at this point) twice in the past three months and have gotten tested both times. The first time I had to stay home for three days until results came back and the second time it took four days. Both times the results came back negative, but I had to stay home for seven total days in the span of three months. Would such absences be counted under a staff member’s sick leave or would they have to utilize some other form of leave?

• Will masks be required for students and staff in any situation where it’s not possible to keep 6 feet between individuals? This subject came up during the most recent meeting, when some board members expressed sentiments that requiring masks would be unconstitutional. What exact constitutional right would be infringed by a mask requirement? I recognize difficulties in mask wearing for very young children, but surely kids from about third grade on up can be taught to utilize them properly.

The expert consensus is overwhelmingly that masks are an effective method of preventing transmission of COVID-19 because they prevent the wearer from spreading respiratory droplets and because the CDC estimates that up to 40% of transmission occurs when an infected individual has no symptoms at all. The CDC also states there are very few individuals with legitimate medical reasons that a mask would be contraindicated during normal activity, but exceptions could be made for those cases. Given that masks are worn to protect others from the wearer, what valid, science-backed reason is there that anybody should be able to choose not to protect other students and staff?

• A board member replied to a comment on Facebook saying many people were strongly opposed to masks, which makes it problematic to require them. Many people are also strongly opposed to having armed teachers in school, yet the board and administration have repeatedly asserted the desires of such parents cannot be accommodated.

The district has asserted many times that armed staff are for the safety of all students and staff members and therefore parents and students have no options. How exactly would mandated masks be any different since it would be done for general safety and would be broadly applied to everyone?

• It was also mentioned the district can’t afford to provide disposable masks for all students every day. Given the long list of school supplies parents are given each year, couldn’t cloth masks be added to that list? Couldn’t requests go out to the community for help in making cloth masks for those who can’t afford them?

• If masks are not required and therefore even students and staff who do choose to wear them could potentially be exposed by those who do not, will the district be paying the medical bills in the event of an outbreak resulting in illness or hospitalizations because they opted not to enforce the best practices recommended by health experts?

• What about high-risk staff members who are dedicated teachers who have been told by health professionals to limit their exposures and not be around individuals who are not masked? What accommodations will be in place for those who shouldn’t have to choose between doing their jobs and literally risking their lives? The same question applies for high-risk students.

As I said, I want my kids back in school and I don’t expect guarantees there won’t be COVID cases connected to the schools because it’s almost a certainty there will be. Even though there’s no evidence of COVID spread at school, there have already been two cases connected to summer school. I do expect, however, the district to rely on best practices to minimize the chances of a full-blown outbreak connected to the schools and to reduce the risk to everyone.

Our schools are one thing in our community that ties us all together. Even those community members without children or grandchildren are undoubtedly impacted by what happens at school. The district has a responsibility to get this right and take steps to minimize the risk we all have to take when kids go back to school.


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