CASPER, Wyo. — Officials with the Natrona County School District and the Casper-Natrona County Health Department (CNCHD) are working toward a plan to allow students to safely return to school this fall.
While hopeful that in-building instruction will be able to resume, CNCHD Executive Director Anna Kinder noted during an NCSD Board of Trustees meeting on Monday, June 8 that Natrona is likely still experiencing community spread of COVID-19.
“Today we had five [new cases], so it continues to be prevalent in our community, in fact it is getting more diversified than it was in the beginning,” she said.
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NCSD officials have been meeting with health officials on a weekly basis and the team is optimistic that sports such as football will be able to resume headed toward the 2020-2021 school year.
Kinder said that the NCSD and CNCHD team working toward a re-opening strategy has been going well, saying their “planning is phenomenal.”
The next step in the plan is to prepare for a way to allow summer school and athletic activities to resume.
“I think we are getting to a point where we can continue to move forward,” Kinder said.
In order to safely allow students and staff to return both to athletic practices and the classroom, Kinder noted that the joint team is working toward an algorithm to determine how many students can safely be in a particular amount of square footage together.
One goal of the planning is “to prevent any massive change [in COVID-19 spread] quickly.”
Trustee Kevin Christopherson said that he expects COVID-19 to be in the community for some time to come.
“We are going to get COVID in the schools.” he said.
Christopherson said he thought it was important schools find a way to reopen despite that.
Kinder noted that vaccinations for COVID-19 remain unavailable.
“We are a long way away from vaccinations,” she said.
In lieu of vaccinations, officials are working toward COVID-19 screening protocols. Kinder said that the test which is available now can be painful as it involves sticking a swab far into a person’s nose.
“Nobody likes it,” she said. “It is a horrendous test. We recognize that.”
Kinder added that rapid testing or antibody testing would give officials more options to ensure that students and staff can come to school on a regular basis.
She noted that an antibody test is something “school nurses could do instantly” if there was a student with COVID-19 symptoms.
“At this point, we don’t have that available to us,” she said.
Until the testing situation changes, if students and staff are able to return for in-building instruction this summer of fall, NCSD will ask that those who are sick, particularly if they have symptoms of a respiratory illness such as a fever, cough or shortness of breath, remain home and contact their healthcare providers.
Kinder said that another problem that comes up during the planning process is that individuals who spread the virus are often asymptomatic. People may have COVID-19, but are unaware as they aren’t experiencing symptoms.
“A lot of our cases are that way,” Kinder said.
Kinder said people in the community are still encouraged to wear face coverings, particularly when in close proximity to one another.
“I will not lie, that is one of the most difficult areas that we have,” she said, noting that a lot of people don’t see the need or don’t want to wear face coverings. “There is a lot of shunning to those people who do wear them.”
Trustee Dave Applegate said he thought it would be very difficult to require students of any age to wear the face coverings.
“I think mask wearing for children can be very difficult,” he said. “I don’t care if they are young children or even high school kids, to ask them to wear a mask all day is very challenging.”
Kinder noted that there are still a lot of unknowns about COVID-19 and things continue to change. She added that face coverings are a part of that on-going change as well, noting that there are masks made of material better able to protect against the spread of the virus now available.
She encouraged people to think about face coverings from a harm reduction standpoint.
“When I am in another persons space, close proximity, that’s when I really need to consider wearing a mask,” she said.
In addition to possible limitations on the number of students in classrooms, Kinder said that another aspect of the planning is looking at how schools can keep students within the same groups as much as possible.
Limiting students moving from one group to another would not only limit the potential spread of the virus, but it would also make it easier to contain should a student or staff member test positive as school and health officials will have a better idea of who that person has had close contact with.
Trustee Clark Jensen said that he hoped health officials were keeping in mind other aspects of children’s well-being of not only their physical health, but also their social-emotional health.
He noted that it is important for children to interact with other kids as well as adults outside of their own families. Jensen added that some parents have communicated that the virtual learning model has been a challenge and asked that the health department ensure they keep these kinds of factors in mind.
“We have to balance the other factors,” Jensen said. “We have to look at the risk benefit of our actions….look at all of it.”
Kinder said that some CNCHD staff have children and are very aware of the challenge the school restrictions during the spring semester placed on parents and guardians.
“We recognize those hardships because it is affecting our staff as well,” she said, noting that COVID-19 is posing new challenges for everyone.
Christopherson asked what can be done about passing periods, describing Kelly Walsh High School’s passing periods as similar to “cattle going down a chute.”
Superintendent-elect Mike Jennings said that part of the planning involves figuring out how to stagger the timing of any movement between classrooms to minimize the number of students in hallways at one time. He said that was just one of a number of social distancing protocols officials are working toward.
“There is quite a list,” he said.
Trustee Angela Coleman said during the work session she thought the district may need to make some changes to how much students are required to show up to school this fall.
“I think we are going to have to look at revamping our attendance policy,” she said.
Superintendent-elect Mike Jennings added during the work session that the district is planning to continue offering virtual learning options to minimize disruptions to students learning. Even if students return for in-building instruction, the virtual learning model will be in place.
That will be not only for students who may be sick, but also for students whose parents or guardians are not comfortable sending them to schools.
The Latest Statistics from the Wyoming Department of Health:
What to do if you are feeling sick: In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Casper-Natrona County Health Department says that people who are feeling sick or exhibiting symptoms should contact their primary physician.
If you do not have a primary care provider, and live in Natrona County, please contact the COVID-19 hotline, operated by the Casper-Natrona County Department of Health. The line is open Monday – Friday 8:00 am – 5:00 pm 577-9892. Hotline services are intended for Natrona County residents and may not be able to provide specific information to persons calling from out of county.
Officials ask that you please do not self-report to the Emergency Room. Persons experiencing problems breathing should call 9-11.
For general inquiries and non-symptom related questions about COVID-19, please contact the Casper-Natrona County Health Department via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Practice Social Distancing by putting distance between yourself and other people. This is especially important for people who are at higher risk of getting very sick.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds especially after you have been in a public place, or after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. If soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick
- Stay home if you’re sick
- Cover coughs and sneezes. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze or use the inside of your elbow.
- Clean AND disinfect frequently touched surfaces daily. This includes tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets, and sinks.
A list of area closures attributed to COVID-19 are available here.