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"School is a very sterile environment," TMS teacher and TEA president Angela Hoopes told the school board on Monday. Class sizes will be reduced this week as the district transitions to a hybrid learning model, and if the county is elevated to the critical risk level, school will go fully remote next week. 

Students could go to at-home learning next week

Because of the recent jump in COVID cases in the community, on Monday the Teton School District 401 Board of Trustees directed superintendent Monte Woolstenhulme to follow the district reopening plan and transition students to an alternate-day schedule starting Nov. 11, with the possibility of shifting to all-remote learning next Monday. 

On Nov. 6 Eastern Idaho Public Health moved Teton County from moderate to high risk level after the local rate of active coronavirus cases remained over 30 per 10,000 people for three consecutive days.

On Monday the county, cities, school district, and Teton Valley Health released an urgent public health notice stressing the severity of the local spike. 

"If the community does not take action to reduce COVID-19 spread and prevent additional case increases, the ability of our health care system to meet community needs will fall short. If this advisory is not taken seriously, additional actions could occur at the state or local level (including the schools) to protect the health of our citizens and their access to critical health care," the notice reads. 

According to the district reopening plan, which was approved by the school board in August, the county's move into the high risk level is grounds for the entire district to go to hybrid or alternate-day learning. 

Teton County is actually poised to rise again to the critical risk level if its active case rate is still above 45 per 10,000 people on Tuesday night. That would trigger the school district's transition to home-based learning. 

In the hybrid model, starting Wednesday, students will attend class two days per week in person and two days online, with Friday as a work day. If a student's last name starts with A-K, he or she will attend Mondays and Wednesdays in person, while L-Z will attend Tuesdays and Thursdays in person. Parents may request a schedule switch as long as groups are balanced in size. Free breakfast and lunch will still be available for pick up at school for every student. 

Board member Shannon Brooks Hamby argued in favor of being proactive and limiting the spread of the virus by going to fully remote learning until after Thanksgiving, while trustee Alexie Hulme said she didn't want "the kids to be blindsided" by switching to hybrid and then immediately changing to remote learning. 

"We're squabbling over a few weeks right now but there's the potential if this doesn't change that we could lose the whole rest of the school year," Woolstenhulme warned. 

Trustees Ticia Sheets and Jake Kunz wondered how the district could support the at-risk students whose working parents would have to leave them at home alone. 

Woolstenhulme acknowledged that remote learning is "a heavy lift for parents," but said that the district doesn't have the staff or capacity to accommodate that need on top of providing programming for all students. 

The school board empowered Woolstenhulme to follow the reopening plan and make the call this weekend on whether or not school would go to fully remote learning next week, depending on whether the county is elevated to the critical risk level. That mode of learning will continue until Thanksgiving break, and Woolstenhulme said he and the district administrative team would announce on Saturday, Nov. 28, what December would look like as far as schooling. 

Extracurricular activities will continue as long as the governor's new directives are followed, including limits of 50 spectators or less at indoor sporting events. ABC director Diane Temple said that depending on staffing and resources, the afterschool program had plans in place to continue within the hybrid schooling model. 

When asked how the teachers felt about the hybrid model, Teton Education Association president Angela Hoopes said, "It's not ideal." She explained that it requires more work and planning, particularly for the lower grades. She then gave her oft-repeated plea that the community support the schools' efforts by following public health guidelines. 

"We have to have a public that is willing to do what it takes to help us keep COVID out of our schools," Hoopes said. "If it's really important for them to have their kids face to face, one on one with a teacher, we have to abide by CDC guidelines, we have to do what the governor is telling us to do. If we're going to get rid of this virus, there have to be concessions made by the public." 

Other administrators and teachers chimed in in the comments section of the meeting livestream. Some noted that transitions between online and in-person learning have been smoother this semester than in the spring when the district had to abruptly shut down at the onset of the pandemic.  

"We have been practicing all year for when this became a reality," wrote Teton Middle School principal Brian Ashton to concerned parents. "I have full confidence in our teachers and our students. What I can guarantee is that we will do our best, adjust in real time, and do everything we can get back to in-person learning as soon as possible."