“It’s different,” said Kayson Jones.
Jones, walking down Deloney Street on Monday with a tippy armload of books, is a student at Jackson Hole High School. He woke up that morning and learned school was canceled. “Yeah, just planning on doing something for the next few weeks. My mom wants us to read books… I’m not really a big book fan, so I was like, OK.”
This week Teton County School District, Jackson Hole Community School and Teton Science Schools suspended classroom instruction in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, teachers directed online learning.
For parents, school administrators and teachers, it’s an evolving puzzle. Parents juggle work, childcare and busy home environments that they have transformed into offices and classrooms.
On Monday, Hansen Street was, for a little while, one big snowball fight. Over on Millward, a contractor piled out of his truck at a construction site with his 8-year-old partner for the day. “It’s been unique but we’re getting through it,” he said. (The man asked that KHOL not use his name given he is navigating new work circumstances with his son in tow.). “It adds a bit of a different dynamic to your day, but it is what it is and we’re doing the best that we can.”
At the construction company, there are other parents with kids struggling to adapt, he said. “It’s so new and everyone is trying to react to what has been given to us. We are trying to figure out the best thing for our little guys.”
His eight-year-old assistant seemed to be adjusting well. “I like not being in school. It’s fun. I’m just driving with my dad, really, and going to job sites.”
“We’re just trying to do something with the deck,” he said, gesturing with casual ease at the snow-piled structure in question.
“This is unprecedented for our school system, quite frankly for our community,” said Charlotte Reynolds, communications director for Teton County School District.
“I have experience in crisis communication; this is totally different,” she said. “Cancelling school was a dramatic step, and has ripple effects throughout our community.”
The impacts of the school closures stretch beyond students and staff to anyone who has children in the district and employees with children, she said.
Given all the necessary adjustments, school counselors were also available online this week. But among the parents and school staff KHOL spoke with, most seemed more anxious than students about the closure.
“I have experience in crisis communication; this is totally different.”
– Charlotte Reynolds, Teton County School District
That doesn’t mean young people are not internalizing anxieties about COVID-19 and their parents missing work. Teton County enacted a shutdown on nonessential services Wednesday evening and the economic effects will place untold financial burdens on local families. The Community Foundation and One 22 are working to provide relief for such households.
This is Serious
Tiffany and Justin Crabtree have two sons, Isaac, in eighth grade, and Sam, a sophomore. They were happy with TCSD’s response. “Over the last week I was pretty impressed with how quickly they got things put together to help the kids stay productive for the week,” Justin said.
Isaac has special needs and his mom said he received phone calls from the school “to see if he has enough food, what he’s working on, or what he needs help with.”
She said they appreciated the extra support for him this week. “But I think the piece that is kind of weird for us is just to see the response from other members in the community,” or lack of response, that is, to social distancing protocols.
“Unlike other people in the neighborhood [who] might be having other families over, I think we take it a little more serious having a child who is medically compromised.”
The Crabtrees say it is hard to convey the perspective that comes from having someone you love be so vulnerable, and specifically now, to COVID-19.
“I think for me, pictures speak louder than words,” Tiffany said. She pointed to a picture of Isaac that the family thinks about often. “He had just come out of open heart surgery and has tubes, almost on life support. And I think that picture is really worth a thousand words.”
They urged everyone to think of the more fragile among us, like their son Isaac. They were struck by the words of top infectious disease specialist Dr. Anthony Fauci on Thursday. “He said if you feel like you’re overreacting you’re probably just barely doing enough,” Justin said.
In other words, officials issuing school closures, limiting gatherings and recommending that six-foot moat between non-household members have done so for a reason. This is not some arbitrary dance.
Navigating a New Normal
On Gill Street, cousins Daniela Rivera Vasquez and Avril Vasquez Berruecos walked Galaxy the shar-pei in the sunshine and melting slush. Their families learned about the school closure Sunday night and were prepared. “I woke up and just started playing on my phone,” Daniela said. “Our parents worked.”
Daniela, a seventh grader, is old enough to watch Avril, in third grade. But where older siblings are unable to step in, families have a conundrum that falls heaviest on low-income households.
For the youngest children in the valley, most daycare and preschools have closed. On Thursday, Governor Mark Gordon ordered sweeping closures for public places and businesses, including most daycare facilities. But Wyoming Department of Family Services ombudsman Clint Hanes said the order exempts daycares serving families of first responders and healthcare workers.
For the ones staying open, they feel a duty to help desperate parents.
Rocio Cisneros kept Happy Kidz Day Care open all week but closed Friday to study Gordon’s new directive. “I have a lot of kids from families who work in the hospital and some in the government,” Cisneros said. It appears, then, that she will open back up come Monday.
At Rocky Mountain Kids, Shanna Sheue said her operation is open “until a positive case” is diagnosed among her clients. Sheue is also accepting new clients. “If any of our first responders, firefighters, EMTs need childcare to continue their job we will be open to them until we get word that we need to close.”
Sheue and her staff have adopted aggressive cleaning tactics. Alyssa Erickson, a manager at Rocky Mountain Kids, said they have bumped up their bleach solution strength, in keeping with CDC guidelines.
During the day, they clean one room when the children are playing or napping in another. After treatment, they rinse toys and surfaces of bleach residue. Erickson emphasized that the spray is within safety standards, and they make sure there is plenty of ventilation.
Of course, children with symptoms consistent with the coronavirus must stay home, Erickson added.
The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted Sheue to review tuition charges. She says she knows people are strapped for cash. “So I’m going to try to figure out what we can charge. I want to do anything and everything in my power to help my families.”
Dee Buckstaff, founder and owner of the Montessori School of the Tetons, kept her facility open Monday, but decided to close Tuesday night. It was a tough call.
“I couldn’t sleep,” Buckstaff said. “I’ll be OK, but we have a lot of families who will really be hurting. My families, parents, have to work.”
In the absence of classroom instruction, Buckstaff has begun a “Story Time” video series on her Facebook page. She is also preparing a daily schedule of activities to share with her families.
Last fall, childcare providers and teachers launched an email listserve to stay in touch and discuss childcare strategies and resources for parents. “It’s nice to feel like we are all in it together,” Buckstaff said.
She said it’s helpful to be in touch, collaborate on how to move forward into coronavirus terrain, quell nerves. Recently for one teacher it was: “I don’t know. I take care of my 80-year-old parents at home. What do I do?”
Buckstaff said everyone weighed in and the decision was made: Don’t come in to work.
“I’ll be OK, but we have a lot of families who will really be hurting. My families, parents, have to work.”
– Dee Buckstaff, Montessori School of the Tetons
Feeding a Need
If you are under the age of 19, Wes Clarke, TCSD food service director, wants to feed you. This week, absolutely anyone under the age of 19 could get free takeout at Jackson Hole High School.
Lunch was drive-through. Pull up, choose from the menu, and the kitchen staff brought it to your car. “We did the kids’ favorite, we did pizza today,” Clarke said on Monday. Other choices were Caesar salad and peanut butter and jelly or ham and cheese sandwiches. The kitchen also offered walk-by service for kids who wanted to amble over.
Between Monday and Thursday, the school district doled out 565 meals. “This isn’t just for the people who qualify for a free or reduced meal,” Clarke said. (Eighteen percent of Teton County students rely on such assistance.) “School breakfast and lunch are for every child.”
High take-out numbers will not only sideline any stigma young people might feel showing up, but more kids grabbing lunch will also help stabilize local food supplies. Normally, Clarke said, “at the schools we serve 1,900 meals a day.” That means TCSD already has “stuff on-site ready to go.” So if young people take advantage of school meals, it will help keep food in the grocery stores for everyone else.
TCSD is pausing this service for spring break, which begins Monday, March 23, but Hole Food Rescue will resume in its place, serving curbside lunches 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Jackson Hole High School for the next two weeks.
If schools do not reopen after spring break, Clarke and his crew will keep the meals coming.
The Fund for Public Education, based in Jackson, launched a fund to help in the event of extended school closures.
“It’s uncharted waters,” TCSD’s Reynolds said. “The uncertainty around this is discomfiting.” But, Reynolds is proud of how everyone has pulled together. They are working “incredibly hard to support our students both academically and socially and emotionally.”
In her update to students and families, TCSD superintendent Gillian Chapman offered some advice: “When in doubt, read books together,” she said.
Somewhere in the valley, Kayson Jones is on the case, maybe.