CHEYENNE — As of Friday afternoon, just five days into the new school year, there were more than 170 active coronavirus cases and exposures in Laramie County School District 1 schools.
A total of 39 children and 10 staff members reported positive COVID-19 tests, while more than 100 other children are being asked to quarantine at home because of exposure.
This comes after the announcement a week earlier by district officials that students will not be required to wear masks in school, except on the bus, which is a federal regulation. School administrators made strong masking recommendations, enacted social distancing requirements and continue deep sanitation efforts.
While students, parents, teachers and administrators all said they were excited to get back to class and connect with the community again, it has come as a shock to some how quickly the numbers increased.
LCSD1 head nurse Janet Farmer collects data for the schools, and said the number of cases reported in the first week is higher than the district has ever witnessed in such a short period of time.
Throughout the school day, school nurses have had to dedicate 90 percent of their time to COVID-related issues with students and contact tracing. Farmer said she’s very concerned with the uptick in cases, and that’s because it’s just the beginning.
“I don’t see an end in sight right now,” she said Saturday.
Carey Junior High School Principal Derek Nissen said he is happy to be face-to-face again with students and faculty, but there was a lot of strategizing that had to take place over the summer. His team came together at the beginning of the school year to analyze the protocols given by district officials, and said that distance has played a large part in prevention without masks.
Before Monday, faculty had to make sure tables were properly distanced, classroom sizes were adequate and there were sanitization strategies executed in between classes.
Students are asked to wear masks when certain social distancing measures can’t be maintained, such as: 6 feet during athletics and activities; 4 feet when students are seated in the lunchroom, or while in transition to and from the lunch table; and 3 feet when students are in a classroom. Nissen cannot enforce the rules, though, because he said as far as the board has communicated, it is only a recommendation.
These distancing rules were also in place last year, but Nissen said this year is different in dealing with COVID-19, which makes him more worried.
“Last year, we had masks that seemed to do a good job of making sure we stayed in school,” he said. “And, unfortunately, without a health order giving us direction here, we can only strongly recommend them [this year].”
Nissen is not the only administrator struggling to communicate with parents and students to uphold health and safety protocols without authority from local and state government officials.
Nick Avila, chief operating officer of PODER Academy, the district’s only charter school, said that when the proper agencies and authority get involved, it puts the jobs of administrators and teachers more in focus.
He wants those clear-cut rules, so when school officials make the decision to require masks, it gives them “a little more teeth to work with.” He said parents have to understand that, as of now, there is no legal responsibility schools individually hold for virus spread. He said there also aren’t any guarantees cases are associated with school attendance because there is no way to pinpoint exactly where children are contracting COVID-19.
“In the end, the risk is always going to be there, as long as we have bodies in the building,” Avila said.
Nonetheless, he said the faculty is extremely worried because they are at the front lines, and safety is a first priority. But for them to mask up for another few weeks, or for the rest of the school year, the requirement has to come from government officials.
PODER Academy started school two weeks earlier than the rest of the district because of its charter school status, and two students have tested positive since Aug. 9. Three staff members also tested positive for COVID-19, but two of those cases were the week before students came back to school.
Ashley Meyers is a parent of one of the two children who contracted COVID-19 after PODER’s first week of school, and the aunt of the second student.
She has four children in schools in the district, including three who do not go to PODER and are attending public schools. They are older than 12 and fully vaccinated, which puts them less at risk, but she said she still believes there should be a universal masking requirement to protect the community.
As a mother, she said she wants her children to go to school in person because the social and educational impacts of virtual school were negative, but it’s not safe without masks. She was concerned especially for her daughter’s safety, even before she became sick, because she is in second grade and cannot get the vaccine.
Meyers said the scariest part is the unknown. Earlier in the pandemic, officials said the virus only affected the older generations, and now it has mutated into the delta variant, showing up in schools across the nation. She said there’s not enough information on the longterm impacts of COVID-19 on children for unvaccinated students and faculty to not be wearing masks.
“So, why are we trying to risk it?” she asked.
Lily Meyers, Ashley’s 7-year-old daughter, said she was both scared and excited to start school before she got sick. She said she knew that other children would not be wearing masks, but she still wanted to see her friends and go back after the summer.
“I didn’t want to wear a mask because I’m tired of wearing masks,” she said. “But at the same time, I didn’t want to get COVID.”
Meyers contracted the virus and started showing symptoms immediately after the first week of school. She said she has had the flu and colds before, but this felt like an 8 out of 10 on a scale of how bad the symptoms were.
She described muscle aches and pain, a fever, fatigue and a constant headache. She continued to try to manage virtual school through it all.
“When I went to go get a snack, I wouldn’t walk,” she said. “I would crawl, because it was so hard.”
She returned to school Thursday after almost two weeks out.
Brittany Fountaine, a health care worker and parent of two students in the district, wrote a letter to the superintendent this week because that kind of experience is exactly what she fears for her children, especially if it were to escalate to hospitalization or death.
She even had to pick her son up from Meadowlark Elementary this week after being notified that he would have to self-quarantine due to being in contact with another COVID-19 positive student. Her son burst into tears when they sat down with the school nurse and administrators because he had worn a mask to school every day and was being asked to go home over something that she said could be easily prevented.
She wrote and published the letter to social media, saying, “We are currently in a position where our COVID numbers are higher than they have been at any point since our peak in November of 2020. Our hospital is full. We had 27 codes in the month of July; that’s more than we have ever had since we’ve started collecting data. The majority of those codes were COVID patients. They all died.”
The hospital is now admitting children to the inpatient unit for the first time since the pandemic began, which has led to the pediatric unit being full of sick children and adult overflow because of the virus.
She asked school officials what it would take to put a mask mandate in place. Would it be the death of a child in Cheyenne?
Meyers said she is scared it might. She looks one state south as an example, because an announcement last week made by the American Academy of Pediatrics reported that there have been 18 child deaths from COVID-19 in Colorado.
She is looking to local and state government officials to advocate and use their authority to protect children in schools, but Fountaine said district school leaders need to make a decision themselves.
“Schools are responsible for the safety of the children that go there,” she said. “We have measures in place to deal with things like school shootings, so why is this any different?”
Many school officials have been getting letters, emails and calls like these about safety concerns on both ends of the masking spectrum throughout the week. Nonetheless, there have been no changes made to Smart Safety protocols after the first few days of school.
Students will return to school Monday, after their first weekend off from class, with only a recommendation to mask up and social distance.