Higher coronavirus numbers are putting a strain on one of the largest entities in Park County, the Cody School District.
Superintendent Peg Monteith called the number of students who either tested positive or were in quarantine a “revolving door,” with students exiting and reentering the school at a similar rate.
In total, 73 students and 18 staff members in the district were positive or quarantined as of Oct. 26. There were no cases or quarantines at Valley or Wapiti elementary schools.
While numbers have risen in the county, Monteith has no plans to implement rolling closures of schools at this time, saying it was better for students to be in school than out in the community.
“In terms of one school being shut down, it’s very difficult,” Monteith said. “So many students have siblings in other buildings, or parents who teach in other buildings.”
Closures are still possible, but would more likely be due to missing staff than missing students. The principals at each school said it would take just six teachers being out to “make it very difficult for them to provide instruction,” Monteith said.
At present, Eastside, Livingston and Sunset all have three members of the instructional staff who are either quarantining or have tested positive for the coronavirus. Monteith did not break up the instructional staff numbers by teachers and paraeducators to protect those staff members’ privacy.
Monitoring the virus has created a different challenge. One change in the protocol has been the elimination of “surveillance testing,” regular testing of the staff for COVID-19. The district was given test kits by the Wyoming Department of Health, but after conferring with Park County Public Health Officer Dr. Aaron Billin, staff donated the tests to Public Health.
Instead, Monteith encouraged district employees to take advantage of the free at-home tests provided by the state. There were concerns that bringing employees to the school nurses for testing would put the nurses too much at risk, as the district does not have the full suite of PPE that workers at the hospital do.
One concern Monteith raised was surveillance testing could reveal a lot of teachers that are infected but asymptomatic.
“I know that just sounds like we’re hiding potential positives,” Monteith said. “I know a number of students that have been asymptomatic and gotten tested. It’s likely some staff are as well. We’re trying desperately to keep schools open. As long as it’s working we don’t want to upset that apple cart.”
Teachers were asked at the beginning of the year about surveillance testing, and Cody Education Association President John Corbin said at least those in the high school wanted to take advantage of it, but he couldn’t speak to other buildings. He also said he was not aware of any teachers being consulted about the change in testing.
“As we were engaged on the question on the front end, we would have been happier to be involved on the back end,” Corbin said. “Mrs. Monteith and the administration, we support them. We know they’re trying their best as well.”
All school buildings require people to wear masks when entering and Billin said last week most cases in the schools came from spread outside the buildings.
The decision to move away from surveillance testing was done on the advice of Billin.
“We’re just between a rock and a hard place with all this,” Monteith said. “The decision that was made between the leadership team, nurses, Public Health and the board, was that we need to keep kids in school.”
In order to do that, school officials say there must be buy in from the community, a sentiment Corbin echoed.
“One piece that would be tremendous, we would like community support in this, too,” Corbin said. ”People are tired, we understand that. But we need to be pulling forward with public health orders, so we can be in school and do the best we can for the kids.”