CASPER, Wyo. — Casper-Natrona County Health Department Executive Director Anna Kinder said on Monday that closing schools could potentially increase the spread of COVID-19 within the community.
Kinder told the Natrona County School District Board of Trustees that she does not recommend that schools be closed at this time.
“If we close the schools, we fear that we would have an increase in cases,” she said.
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Kinder said that if schools were closed but workplaces were allowed to remain open, parents would be forced to either stay home or find others to take care of their children.
Some parents could be forced to ask grandparents or neighbors to look after their children, potentially exposing them to the virus. Kinder added that if the health department were to recommend a school closure, it is likely they would do so in conjunction with a recommendation that bars, gyms and other businesses also close.
“That’s the last thing that I want to do,” Kinder said. “We don’t want to go back to where we were in March and April.”
She added that closing schools could have other negative consequences for students. Some students could wind up going without meals which are provided by NCSD.
In addition, students would not have the same opportunity to interact with others, which could negative impact their social development.
However, Kinder noted that some people continue to send their students to school when they are sick just as some people continue going to work when they are sick.
She said it is critical that people keep their children at home when they are sick in order to help slow the spread of the virus.
NCSD Superintendent Mike Jennings noted that 112 students were learning remotely due to having contracted the virus. 24 staff were also in isolation due to having contracted the virus.
154 staff members were in quarantine, Jennings added. NCSD reported on Friday that 921 students were in quarantine.
Kinder said that there are “a lot of people not following quarantine and isolation orders” in the community. She added that the health department has not found any indication that the virus is spreading rapidly within schools, but that the virus is spread throughout the community.
She said that Natrona County saw 941 cases last week, the highest of any county in the state. Safety measures at schools appear to be limiting the spread of the virus within schools, Kinder said.
“At school, we know that people are socially distancing or required to wear a mask,” she said. “We need to continue the messaging to wear a face covering.”
Kinder said she knows that it can be “difficult for teachers to always harp on face masks,” noting that this is similar to the way health officials have had to continually broadcast their message that people should wear face coverings to help slow the spread of the virus.
“My hope is that some day this will go away,” she said. “It is [here] for now but not always.”
Jennings said that the district has been meeting with the health department on a weekly basis and that staff have daily conversations with health officials on a number of topics.
He said the goal of the district remains keeping students and staff safe and offering in-person classes for students so long as it is safe to do so.
Kinder noted that the health department’s contact tracing efforts have struggled to keep up with the volume of positive cases.
“When you get 200 and 300 in a given night, it makes it nearly impossible,” she said.
Kinder said the health department is making some changes to how contact tracing is conducted in order to try to contact people more quickly.
She added that she has spoken with both teachers and parents.
“I know teachers are tired and strained,” she said. “Somehow we have to figure out how to get through this.”
Wyoming Medical Center Chief of Staff Dr. Andy Dunn said that “NCSD has been the cornerstone of our community” in terms of response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“You all have so much to be proud of,” he said. “I have so much confidence in the school system.”
He said schools have done what they can to limit the spread of the virus and is is “other areas that our community needs to work on.”
Dunn added that he too is aware that teachers are in a vulnerable position. He said the district has been flexible in terms of allowing staff to stay home if they feel sick, even if they don’t have a positive test.
“They go by the honor system,” Dunn said.
The district has been struggling with a shortage of substitute teachers this fall. The NCSD Board of Trustees are expected to hear a report on this issue during Monday’s meeting.
The district has 43 less certified substitutes and 16 less classified substitutes available compared to this time last school year, according to the district. The number of substitute custodians that have been hired is comparable to last school year.
The Wyoming Department of Health provides COVID-19 case, variant, death, testing, hospital and vaccine data online. The department also shares information about how the data can be interpreted. COVID-19 safety recommendations are available from the CDC.