Johnson County School District closed through April 3

Bulletin photo by Robb Hicks

Only a few lonely cars remain in the Buffalo High School parking lot on Monday afternoon after Johnson County School Board No. 1 Board of Trustees and administrators closed schools through April 3 in an effort to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus. The move came hours after Gov. Mark Gordon and State Superintendant of Public Instruction Jillian Balow recommended that all Wyoming schools close for three weeks.

At the recommendation of Gov. Mark Gordon and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow, the Johnson County School District is closing its doors through April 3.

“We always look at the safety of our students as our number one priority,” Superintendent Jim Wagner wrote in an email to parents on the evening of March 15. “We have decided to follow the recommendation and close schools through April 3. Upon that date, we will evaluate the information that we receive on the issues of the virus as it happens over the next three weeks.”

Wagner’s email arrived roughly four hours after Gordon and Balow issued a joint statement recommending statewide school closures through April 3 in an effort to promote social distancing. In the statement, Balow said she was issuing a recommendation and not an order, but she strongly advised local districts to take the threat of the spread of COVID-19 seriously.

Balow said the statewide recommendation is not necessarily based on epidemiological best practices, but it is an attempt to allow schools and communities to mitigate community spread of COVID-19.

“Evidence of community spread in Fremont County, two confirmed cases in Sheridan County and pending tests from across the state have led us to this,” Balow said. “Wyoming has over 90,000 square miles where schooling is an essential function in each community – the decision is difficult.”

The statewide recommendation was released after the three cases of COVID-19 were diagnosed in the state. As of Wednesday morning, there were 15 cases in the state including eight in Fremont County, four in Sheridan County, two in Laramie County and one in Park County. To date no cases have been confirmed in Johnson County.

After the release of Gordon and Balow’s statement, most of the school districts in the state announced that they would follow the recommendations.

In the evening of March 16, Balow released a memo extending a waiver that would reduce the 175 days of required instructional days for each district by the number of days the district misses through April 3. For the Johnson County School District, their required number of instructional days will drop from 175 to 166.

Although students will be out of the school buildings for at least three weeks, district staff will work to ensure that learning continues during the break, Wagner said.

“The district will make every effort we can to continue learning during this difficult period,” Wagner said.

Staff will be creating plans for online learning in reading and math, Wagner said. The district will attempt to provide one electronic device to each household that needs one so that learning can continue. Charter Spectrum is offering free internet service for families who do not have access at home during this period, Wagner said. 

At Buffalo High School, teachers are working to put individualized action plans in place so students won’t fall behind in their work, Buffalo High School principal Jodi Ibach said.

In an effort to ensure that students’ nutritional needs are met, the school district will provide bagged lunches for school-aged students during the closure. Lunches can be picked up Monday through Friday between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. in the drop-off lane of Meadowlark Elementary and at the back door by the playground of Kaycee School. 

The district is also working with two local organizations – Friends Feeding Friends and the Bread of Life Food Pantry – to iron out details regarding the district’s ability to offer student breakfasts, Wagner said.

All extracurricular activities are suspended and groups are not allowed to meet during the closure. All previously scheduled spring break trips will be rescheduled for later this school year or the 2020-21 school year, Wagner said. ACT testing at Buffalo High School has also been postponed.

Parent-teacher conferences, which were scheduled during this three-week period for Meadowlark Elementary, Cloud Peak Elementary and Kaycee School will be conducted over the phone, according to Meadowlark principal Laurie Graves.

Spring break at Kaycee School, which had been scheduled for the week of April 5, has been cancelled and will now be incorporated into the three weeks the district is closed, Kaycee School principal Jason Moss said.

“We simply didn’t think a fourth week off was prudent after missing three weeks of school,” Moss said during a March 16 school board meeting.

Staff will continue to receive their normal pay throughout the district closure, Wagner said.

Wagner said the district would keep an open line of communication with parents throughout the three-week period.

“If anything during the next three weeks changes, parents will be notified as soon as possible,” Wagner said.

Experts believe COVID-19 spreads mostly between people who are in close contact and through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. People are thought to be most contagious when they are most ill with obvious symptoms. A person may also get COVID-19 by touching a surface that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose or eyes. Social distancing, basic hygiene and heightened disinfection efforts are the primary means of containing COVID-19 spread.

Stephen Dow covers a variety of beats for the Buffalo Bulletin including the Johnson County Commissioners and JCSD #1. Stephen is a Billings native who joined the Bulletin in 2016.

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