Board struggles with state COVID requirements

LUSK – COVID updates, requests for consideration of an additional music teacher and the annual audit report summarized the bulk of the November 23 meeting of the Niobrara County school district board of trustees. 

The meeting was called to order at 6 p.m. In lieu of the normally recited pledge of allegiance, the sign language performance group, “Musical Hands” directed by Tracianne Zerbe presented The Star Spangled Banner.

Teacher Celine Hall was granted the floor as a visitor. Ms. Hall was present to request the consideration of the board for another instructor for the K-12 music program. Hall outlined previous achievements and courses offered via a two instructor led program in previous years. She expressed her willingness to continue working extensive hours and offering all she can to the students in her 11 class levels and 14 physical classes but admitted that program expansion and improvement will eventually hit a wall without the addition of another instructor. 

The schedule that is currently used prevents Hall from being able to offer additional outside the classroom instruction during those times specifically designated during the day such as Student Success time or Prime time or even lunch hours because she is always teaching another class at those times. She often doesn’t have the opportunity to participate in staff meetings or trainings because she is working in both buildings. Her planning time is a total of 60 minutes a day and that is inadequate to provide appropriate and comprehensive lessons for every class she must teach. 

In her second year with the district, Hall has already seen a 50% increase in enrollment in the high school programs. In the 2019-2020 year not a single student auditioned for All-State and in 2020-21 half of Hall’s high school students chose to audition. For the first time in at least three years pep band students can play the school song and other selections. 

This progress is not all the potential Hall imagines for the program. She would love to bring back middle school and high school clinic, guitar classes, show choir, children’s choir, musical theatre and so much more, but cannot do it as a department of one.

Hall pointed out, she is well aware of the upcoming budget cuts, strain on staff from COVID and numerous other expenses. She is only asking that as the board moves through the process of planning the next year they strongly consider ex[anding staff in the music department.

Leonard Garcia presented the audit report to the board. He has audited the school for the last eleven years. This year there were no material findings. As in years past the issue of multiple controls was noted but there is no way to get around this without additional staff. Another compliance finding was the district being under collateralized for their bank balances on June 30 though this doesn’t appear to be a trend.

Garcia also cautioned the board to anticipate reduced tax mil levy revenues in the coming fiscal year due to reduction in assessed valuations in Niobrara county.

Under old business the board held extensive discussion around COVID requirements currently issued by the state which impact the schools. With the new round of public health orders, even grade school kids will be required to mask if they are not able to distance. Fortunately, none of the classes at either building are over 25 however it is not possible to maintain 6 feet between students in most of the grade school classes. Lu Kaspers, LEMS principal agree with the sentiment that masking all day was not ideal and stated that she and staff members are working on creative solutions to masking all day including being creative with clear shower curtains. Students are already wearing mask in high risk classrooms and scenarios of close proximity. 

Kaspers said, “Given the choice between masks and teaching from home (to an online class), I, other staff and the kids would rather wear masks. Kids want to be in the building.”

According to Mirich, five families have requested that their kids be allowed to continue instruction online rather than attend classes in the school. Mirich’s response to these requests and any other will be outlined in a communication to parents. 

Mirich stated, “We are not doing remote learning in this district because we are still in tier 1. Students may learn from home for the rest of the semester and after that they may be registered in WYVA. This is a modified tier 2 for parents requesting only in the month of December. Students quarantined are not considered absent from school. Students staying at home as requested by a parent will be counted absent and will follow the absentee policy in the student handbook. Students ill will be counted absent and will follow the absentee policy. All other absences will be treated as they were prior to the pandemic. We feel that the school is the healthiest of all environments where students are interacting with peers and adults outside of their home.”

With the expiration of the county wide variance previously granted, the schools will be impacted by the health order in how the allow attendees to sporting events. At this time indoor events are limited to 25% of the capacity of the gymnasium and not more than 100 people. The WHSAA is interpreting this 100 to mean spectators not including participants however pep bands and hear or pep squads are included in deterring the capacity or number allowed. For outdoor venues the number continues to be 50% of capacity or not more than 250 people. 

WHSAA has also requested that if a school is going to choose to host an event they try to include some space for visiting spectators and to require masks from the time someone enters the building to the time they leave. While this is frustrating for small schools like Lusk Mirich did mention that for some schools that have the ability to seat 4,000 spectators in an indoor facility, masking when you only have 100 people in your venue is difficult to understand.

Board members expressed frustration as to why all the time was put into smart start plans and tiers if the state is just going to override those plans and processes with blanket statements and one-size-fits-all public health orders. The school district has not had a single student at the elementary level test positive for COVID. While several students have been quarantined because of family members there has not be any student spread outbreaks at LEMS. As one board member pointed out, clearly masking all day is not more effective than the measure employed at LEMS because Lingle requires masks all day for their K-5 students and they have had positive cases and associated illnesses in their grade school.

As the meeting closed Chairman Joel Richardson expressed his appreciation for his experience and the time he has spent on the school board. He reminded the remaining members that the kids must come first in ever decision, not special interest groups, not emotions or personal opinion and not other’s opinions. Both he and Jason Gill thanked the other board members for their time and then for the final time Richardson adjourned the meeting.


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