MIDWEST, Wyo. — It’s noon, and the bell isn’t ringing.
The wind whistles across roofs, and dogs sporadically bark into the gray sky, but this central Wyoming oil town of 400 is mostly quiet. The school bell should be announcing lunch, but the children are gone, and so the bell is silent.
Gone too are the students’ shrieks on the playground, the crunch of their bikes on the gravel side roads, the clash of football players from the field down the hill. The streets of modest single-story homes are muted, like the greens of the distant hills and the yellows of the endless sagebrush plains that surround the town.
It’s sometimes difficult to notice an absence of something, but for the people of Midwest, the silence of the school bell is impossible to ignore. Midwest School closed indefinitely in May after gas from a nearby oil well leaked into the building, reported the Casper Star-Tribune (http://bit.ly/2cw4t8K). Now, about 100 of its students travel 42 miles daily to Casper for classes.
But the town lost more than just the chatter of its children when the school doors were locked, residents here say. It also lost a community center and an institution that was a source of pride and unity in a time of uncertainty.
“With the oil the way it is, that school is the most important thing in the community,” 90-year-old Helen Anderson said. “It’s our heart.”
Anderson would know — she’s lived in Midwest for the majority of the past 49 years. She didn’t go to the school herself, but her husband was a janitor there. Her four kids, three grandchildren and one great-grandchild all graduated from the school. Two still attend.
She misses the kids who would stop by her house as they walked home from school. She misses the lights switching on at the football field and how people from nearby towns and ranches would fill the stands to watch a late-summer game.
But most of all, she misses seeing her two great-grandkids, both juniors at the school. Now they leave for Casper at 6:30 each morning and often don’t return until 8 p.m. That leaves little time to visit their great-grandma in her little white house two doors down from the school playground.
“It’s too quiet now,” she said.
When the school closed, the town lost its swimming pool, summer open gym hours and a space for community functions. Some events could be relocated, but nowhere else could serve as a backup venue for Movies in the Park. Without the football and volleyball games, evening activities are limited for those not willing to travel.
A community needs a space to inhabit, a place where it can grow and bind neighbors together. Without one, it’s harder to sustain, said Jennifer Bishop, who as president of Salt Creek Days organizes many of the events in town. The sense of community and support — the very things that make Midwest special — was dampened somewhat when the school closed, she said.
“The school is why I live here,” Bishop said. “We all raise our kids together.”
The kids are used to classes of eight or 10. The parents are used to walking their children to school and leaving them under the watchful eye of a familiar teacher. If nobody is home when the kids leave school, parents know their child will be welcomed to an afternoon snack at a neighbor’s house.
And if for some reason the school were to close for good?
“Then we’re out of here,” Bishop said. “It may just be time to go.”
The school is the latest loss for an oil town enduring another low point in the boom-and-bust cycle it has withstood since the first oil was extracted here in the late 1800s. The price of its most important product — arguably its only product — plummeted over the past two years. The Edgerton Cafe, one of the few businesses in town, closed in January. A rig worker died in a fall. Other workers left town.
And then Midwest was forced to ship its children to another city.
The town has been through a lot. But a long-term closure of the school could be fatal, Mayor Guy Chapman said.
“It’s the hub of the town,” he said. “You’re not going to have a town without a school.”
Federal air quality tests completed two days after the evacuation found benzene levels at 200 times the amount that is considered safe along with high amounts of carbon dioxide, according to a report by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Benzene is a carcinogen that can cause dizziness, headaches, confusion and in the long term create a higher risk for cancer, according to a letter from the local health department.
Air tests performed in the school in June after the leaking oil well was fixed found benzene and carbon dioxide at levels considered safe.
Some residents say living in an oil town means accepting the potential dangers of the wells that surround them — they’re a fact of life in Midwest. The town, after all, is named for the oil company that built it. The school’s sports teams call themselves the Oilers.
“You gotta realize we live in an oil field. It is what it is,” said Michele Butler, who lives less than a block from the school her two kids attended for 13 years. “When we have no more birds, then I’ll know there’s a problem.”
Although some residents reported hives and headaches potentially linked to the chemicals, others like Sue Green have never experienced such problems. Her three children all attend Midwest School and the family has lived a block from the building for three years.
“I’m 100 percent fine with the kids going back into the school,” Green said. “I have a well in my backyard. We know what that means, and we choose to live here.”
Now that the leak has been fixed and the air found to be safe, Green simply wants her school and her children back. She hoped that the students could return to Midwest School for the spring semester.
But there’s more to be done before the school doors can open again.
First, the Natrona County School District must select an environmental consultant that will work with the health department and federal agencies to review the oil company’s mitigation plans. The firm will then test the air in and around the school and use the results to install permanent air monitoring equipment as well as develop a backup monitoring system. Finally, the firm will work with local health officials to create an evacuation plan and a long-term health and safety plan for the building.
School district spokesman Kelly Eastes said reopening the school before the spring semester is “the ultimate goal,” but it’s difficult to know how feasible that would be.
Mayor Chapman remains optimistic that the school will reopen, and soon.
“We’re going to get the school back on one way or another,” he said. “This town’s been through a lot and we’ve paid our dues to Natrona County, pumping the oil out of the ground and bringing in the taxes. We deserve to get our school back.”
For now, however, many of the classrooms remain empty, stripped of the posters and craft supplies that marked it a place of learning.
Other rooms look as if the kids had just left. Tiny chairs unevenly circle miniature tables, littered with stickers. A poster encourages students to “Be the best first graders ever!” A stuffed animal sloth sits on a windowsill next to a box of tinkering toys.
But everything that remains — left perhaps in the hope of a quick return — is covered in a fine layer of dust.
It’s 3:15 p.m., and the school bell should be ringing again.
The students should be shoving their last notebook into their backpacks. Their sneakers should be squeaking down the hallways as they chat about what to do with the rest of the day.
The school doors should be slamming behind them as they walk the few blocks home.
Instead, there’s only the wind.
Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com