Although Park County School District No. 1 has closed its doors, teachers and other staff will be working with families to help students continue to learn during what could be an extensive break.
“We’re going to do the very best we can to help parents provide learning for their students throughout the break,” said Superintendent Jay Curtis, adding, “Our teachers are going to be available throughout to help our families and our students.”
Curtis encourages all families to keep a learning routine during the closure, “as continuous learning is vital for our students to continue to grow and develop.”
The district is providing grade-level specific recommendations and resources on its website, as well as answers to FAQs.
Since the decision to close schools happened so quickly, Curtis said it just was not possible to set up all the services that need to be in place for required school days — especially for students on an individualized educational plan (IEP), those who receive federal 504 accommodations, homeless students, English language learners and other kids who need special services.
“If we require our students to be doing school virtually, then we have to provide all those same services to those students ...,” he explained, and since that wasn’t feasible, “all of our material that goes out over the next couple of weeks is going to be considered optional for students.”
“The thing that I keep stressing to everybody is this is such uncharted territory,” Curtis added. “... So we’re all just doing our very best on a day-to-day and hour-to-hour basis, making the best decisions for our kids.”
Powell students were on spring break last week, so the school closure officially started Monday and is set to run through April 3. But the three-week closure may not be sufficient in stopping the spread of the virus, based on research of its spread elsewhere.
Dr. Aaron Billin, the Park County public health officer, said at a March 17 Park County Commission meeting that school closures will likely be extended to four weeks.
“And, with this type of outbreak … don’t be surprised if it goes to eight weeks — and don’t be totally surprised if your kids don’t go back to school this spring,” Billin said. “That’s how effective school closures can be” in helping to contain an outbreak.
In a Friday letter to families, Curtis outlined details for checking out electronic devices from schools and offered health recommendations, but also shared sadness over the situation.
“I just want to also express how truly sorry I am for the missed experiences and opportunities experienced by your children,” Curtis wrote, adding that he has particular sympathy for this year’s senior class.
Currently, graduation is still scheduled for May 24, and seniors who are on track are expected to graduate on time. However, “due to the fluidity of this situation, we will continue to update families on any contingency plans,” the district wrote on its website.
“Though no one could have predicted this devastating virus, and the impact that it would have on our schools, community, and country, it saddens me deeply that so many senior experiences will be missed,” Curtis wrote in Friday’s message. “My very best wishes to our senior class in this unprecedented time, and to all of our students who are missing learning opportunities as a result of the virus.”
On Friday, the U.S. Department of Education granted Wyoming schools a waiver from certain federal assessment and accountability requirements. As a result, Wyoming students will not take the statewide assessment, WY-TOPP, this spring, said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow. She said the U.S. department responded to the waiver request “within hours.”
“By removing this testing burden from schools, districts will be better able to continue to focus on their students’ immediate needs during this unprecedented time,” Balow said in a news release Friday.
Curtis also told the Tribune that he has been “so impressed with the way that our community has come together” amid the outbreak.
“I’ve felt a lot of support personally as superintendent, but also for our district through this,” he said. “And when you’re making decisions like this at this level, that is appreciated beyond words.”
As one example of the community’s support, local internet providers TCT and Spectrum are working with the district to help ensure students have online access at home.
TCT is “in overdrive trying to make that access available,” Curtis said, commending the company for its partnership. “I think they recognize the importance of that [access] to creating the equity of learning in our community.”
(CJ Baker contributed reporting to this article.)
School board approves emergency leave for employees
Following the closure of local schools amid the COVID-19 outbreak, Powell school employees will continue to be paid.
During a special meeting Thursday evening, the Park County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees unanimously approved COVID-19 emergency leave and hourly staff pay during the closure, which is expected to last through at least April 3.
“We’re paying everybody their base wage for the next two weeks,” Superintendent Jay Curtis said Friday.
Since some employees will be working in those two weeks, staff will have a COVID-19 emergency leave bank. For employees who continue working, those hours will go into a bank that they can either use by June 1 or receive payment for at that time, based on the district’s policy.
“Those that are working will be incentivized to do that and not just be expected to work when other people are staying home,” Curtis explained.
Food service staff will provide free breakfast and lunch meals for all local children under the age of 18. Those meals begin today (Tuesday) at Southside Elementary School, and will be served from 9-11 a.m. on weekdays.
“It’s just so important,” Curtis said. “We know that there’s a group out there that doesn’t have the benefit of nutrition like that when they’re not in school. But in addition to that, resources are scarce for others as well.”
Other essential staff who remain on duty include the business office and human resources. Some employees — including teachers, administrators and mental health professionals — are working from home.