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CASPER — Four Wind River Reservation-based school districts have announced they’ll keep their students at home and learn virtually for the first weeks of this school year, as Fremont County remains the Wyoming county hit hardest by the pandemic and tribal governments continue to institute a limited shelter-in-place order.

The four institutions — Fremont County school district Nos. 38, 21 and 14 and St. Stephens Indian School — moved together earlier this month to move their first quarter of instruction entirely online, removing more than 1,500 students from the classroom and onto computer screens. They also canceled all of their fall sports. The decisions represent the first move by Wyoming school districts to do anything but reopen for in-person instruction in the coming weeks.

The county — and tribal communities in particular — have been especially hard hit by the virus. As of Thursday, 431 cases of the novel coronavirus have been confirmed in the county (with 371 recoveries). The county also has the most deaths — 12 — all of whom are members of the Northern Arapaho Tribe.

The tribal councils have had a shelter-in-place order in place for months, the only one of its kind in Wyoming (Teton County briefly had such a mandate in the spring). On Thursday, that order was loosened slightly, removing a curfew and allowing for businesses to reopen. But it still expressly blocks schools from opening for in-person instruction.

Superintendent Frank No Runner, who leads St. Stephens, said the decision was undertaken to protect students’ elders. While the virus isn’t particularly dangerous for younger people, the risk is that the students would bring the disease home and infect more vulnerable groups. That’s been a persistent concern across the state and country; indeed, it’s the heart of the debate whether to reopen schools.

Superintendent Debra Smith’s Fort Washakie-based district sent out a survey to parents, 60% of whom said they were uncomfortable sending their students back to school. Superintendent Michelle Hoffman’s Ethete district conducted a similar survey, which had slightly more even results but still indicate widespread apprehension about school returning.

“The majority of the community is relieved that we are being very cautious because of our small community and the situation,” Smith said. “We do not want kids to be spreading that virus back home to community members, to elders, to family members. That’s something the board and administration are taking very seriously.”

The decision to cancel fall sports was particularly hard, officials said. No Runner said his son was set to start this year, for which he been waiting “forever.”

Hoffman said that it just made sense to cancel sports, given that students weren’t allowed to congregate in other settings.

“We have a lot of students that go out for cross country and volleyball, and I know that disappoints them,” she said. “You don’t want them in school, so you don’t want them out participating in sports. It kind of negates the whole idea of doing virtual learning if you still take them and throw them back into the same situation you’re trying to avoid.”

All four districts will reevaluate their distance learning in October, when the first quarter ends. In the meantime, they’ll all begin standing up a virtual learning program. They, like the rest of the state’s school districts, had little time to prepare when school was canceled in March. Now, they’re distributing laptops and training staff.

Hoffman said that in March, the district had to install a Wi-Fi hot spot in the parking lot of the high school so students could park their cars and use it. She said the tribes are working with the schools to expand access to technology and internet.

No Runner said St. Stephens would be distributing laptops in the coming weeks. Hoffman said days have been set aside to train staff.

The decision — and the particularly vicious outbreak on the reservation — has been influenced by the tight family structure of tribal families. No Runner said he grew up in a household with multiple generations and with different branches of his family under one roof.

“Native Americans, we really value family, and that’s our wealth, is our family,” he said. “So that’s what we value a lot, and it’s really important that we keep our elders safe because they have a lot of valuable traditional knowledge and cultural knowledge that can’t be replaced if they’re lost.”

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