Students are back in schools, and so is the coronavirus—but this year, schools across Jefferson County have so far maintained relative normalcy and continued in-person instruction without seeing large outbreaks of the virus or reverting to widespread remote learning and mandated mask wearing.
Since the start of the school year, the Jefferson County Health Department has released twice-weekly reports tallying the cumulative case total—not the number of active cases at one time—in each of the county's public schools. The numbers reflect cases among staff and students. The reports include a countywide breakdown of staff cases and student cases but do not differentiate between staff and student cases within individual schools.
According to a report released Sept. 30—the most recent report as of Tuesday morning—Basin School was the only county public school with zero cases of COVID, the disease caused by the coronavirus, so far this school year.
A few weeks into school, on Sept. 20, Montana City School had reported four cases. By Sept. 30, the number rose to 12.
Clancy School reported five cases on Sept. 20, up to nine on Sept. 30.
Boulder Elementary School had six cases by Sept. 20, which increased to 16 on Sept. 30.
Boulder Head Start, a separate program in the same facility as the elementary school, had experienced three cases by Sept. 20 and added one case, for a total of four, through Sept. 30.
Whitehall's elementary, middle and high schools—three schools on one campus—each experienced different numbers of infections. The elementary school had recorded 12 cases by Sept. 20, and the figure rose to 16 by Sept. 30. The middle school jumped from four cases to seven cases total in that time. The high school, which had not yet recorded a case by Sept. 20, went on to log two cases by Sept. 30.
Cardwell School had recorded four cases by Sept. 20, and no more were reported by Sept. 30.
Jefferson High School had four cases so far on Sept. 20, which increased to six on Sept. 30.
In general, school administrators said, instruction has proceeded normally with minimal interruption. Remote learning is available at most, but not all, schools, though some that offer it have yet to need it.
At the small Cardwell School in the county's southeast corner, Head Teacher Seth Coombe said that the school had no cases last school year. Three of the school's four cases so far this year were in a single family that voluntarily isolated and notified the school of their positive tests, she said. Without close contacts inside the school, no one else had to quarantine. Since then, one staff member tested positive. The staff member and one class quarantined for 10 days before returning to school.
"There’s such a lack of subs, so it makes things difficult when something like this happens," she said. "With our classes being so small … we’ve just been following the requests of what the Health Department tells us to do."
Remote learning is available, she said, but hasn't been needed yet.
Masks are "completely optional" at Cardwell School, Coombe said, and "we’re able to do the social distancing between desks because we have small numbers."
The few cases in the school haven't significantly impacted how the school operates, she said, "because most of it has been outside [of the school]." There hasn't been any pushback to the optional masking or quarantine guidance, either.
"I think we’re small enough that we have a pretty open line of communication between us and our families," she said. "I think we’re blessed in that way."
Regardless of class or school size, optional masking and standardized quarantine guidance are the norm across the county.
Masks are optional in Montana City School, Boulder Elementary, Whitehall schools and Jefferson High School—they're "recommended" in Boulder Elementary and Jefferson High, and Montana City will require masks if the school experiences 20 cases in a two-week period, according to Superintendent Tony Kloker.
Dave Selvig, superintendent of Clancy School, did not respond to a request for comment.
The schools are also following quarantine guidelines that generally mirror recommendations from the Health Department and U.S. Centers for Disease Control. People infected with the coronavirus are required to isolate, and schools and the Health Department attempt to determine who, if anyone, at a school was in "close contact" with the infected person, according to Boulder Elementary Superintendent Jeff Elliott. Elliott said that "close contact" specifically means 15 minutes or more of physical proximity fewer than 6 feet apart and without masks. Close contacts, he said, should quarantine for 10 days.
"We’ve already had four classrooms have to quarantine, but our goal is to keep kids in front of teachers," he said. "Our number one goal is to keep kids in school."
Masking, he said, helps keeps kids and teachers in school by reducing the number of close contacts who must quarantine when someone is infected. With masks officially recommended, but not required, there's been some pushback from mask proponents and opponents, Elliott said.
"The masking is a hot topic. There’s people on both sides of it that are pretty vocal," Elliott said. "I’m not trying to take away any liberties—my whole goal is to keep kids in school. And this is what we’re hearing from the science that helps mitigate the spread of this."
Four classes had to quarantine during the first few weeks of school, but the school was "back at full strength" toward the end of the month, he said. But going forward, he said, the school could close and shift to remote learning if the county surpasses 118 active cases at one time. There were 64 active cases in the county on Sept. 30, according to the Health Department.
"I think the biggest thing for us is to be flexible and be light on our feet. I think at any point we could be shut down," Elliott said. "We may, the next week coming up, have certain classes quarantine, we may have to shut everything down like we did in the past. Our staff is really willing to do whatever it takes."
He added: "We’re keeping an eye on what’s happening in the county, but what we’re really focusing on the number of cases in the school."
Rapid testing is available in Boulder Elementary with parental consent, Elliott said. That's also the case in Whitehall's schools, where Superintendent Hannah Nieskens said the tests, in conjunction with school nurses, have minimized illness.
"We are in the third school year of COVID. Many changes have been implemented and are now part of common practice," she wrote in an email. "Since the onset of COVID, we are extremely fortunate to have hired two well-qualified school nurses who manage active cases, contact tracing, and [administer] BinaxNOW tests. Their hard work has contributed to less illness in our schools."
Remote learning is not occuring at Whitehall schools, she wrote, where isolation of infected people is required but quarantine of close contacts is optional and not tracked by the school.
Nieskens wrote that she anticipates "increased population immunity as the school year goes on, established by vaccination and/or antibodies developed by contracting and recovering from illness."
Only a few students in Montana City have had to shift to remote learning, which occurs primarily via live-streaming in middle school and "and combination of packets and remote work" in elementary school, Kloker wrote.
"Remote learning is going OK but it's a process that is tweaked as needed depending upon the student and grade level," he wrote. "We can make this very individualized since we do not have a lot of students in remote learning."
At Jefferson High, Superintendent Tim Norbeck said that parents have "been very good about keeping sick kids home," and that students accounted for five of the school's six cases through Sept. 30.
School has chugged along without interruption so far this year, he said.
"We haven't had any changes. We've been at it seven weeks. That's a pretty good run to know we don't have a slew of cases," he said. "We've been fortunate to only have a few cases."
Remote learning, he said, is generally reserved for students with "long-term" absences, and student who miss a few days are caught-up through mentorship and tutoring in addition to their regular in-person instruction upon returning to school.
The school's low case count, he said, is due not only to testing available at the school but also to the rural nature of the area, respect for students and staff who choose to wear masks, and an overall desire among students to remain in school.
"The kids work hard at it too, they want to be in school," he said. "They've been using their heads and I think that's important."