High School STOCK

CHEYENNE – School officials in Laramie County will spend July figuring out what learning will look like this fall, based on guidance the Wyoming Department of Education released Wednesday.

That monumental task also comes amid a recent spike in the number of COVID-19 cases in Laramie County.

“We’re hoping that we can start school as normal – or as normal as we can – and have contingency plans from there,” Boyd Brown, who is superintendent of Wyoming’s largest school district, Laramie County School District 1, said Thursday in an interview with the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

“We’ve been working since late this spring – around May – on a draft reopening plan, but we didn’t want to do anything specific until we got the information from the state. The information we got (yesterday) didn’t change much.”

Jon Abrams, who is superintendent of the much smaller LCSD2 in eastern Laramie County, said right now, he, too, envisions a start to next school year that will closely resemble learning before the pandemic.

“We are very hopeful that we’re going to be looking as normal as we can, but with heightened attention on sanitation,” Abrams said.

Both district leaders said although they are eager to return students and teachers to their physical classrooms, they will make exceptions for students and staff who are at an increased risk themselves or live with people who are.

Neither LCSD1 nor LCSD2 have been open for traditional classroom instruction since March.

That’s when Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow joined Gov. Mark Gordon to suggest schools close in a coordinated effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, but left it up to each individual district to make the final call.

All of them closed, and students and teachers transitioned – with little warning or precedent – to remote learning for the remainder of the school year.

Now, with less than two months before summer break ends, the state is allowing each district to submit an individual detailed plan for how it will reopen and keep students safe during the ongoing pandemic. All plans are due to the Department of Education by Aug. 3, and they must include plans for three learning scenarios: fully open facilities, fully closed facilities or a hybrid of the two.

As of Thursday, the highly contagious novel coronavirus has killed 130,000 Americans, including 20 Wyomingites. Over the past couple of weeks, as social distancing has recently become more relaxed, Cheyenne, like many cities, has seen a spike in its number of reported cases.

As of Thursday evening, Laramie County had reported a total of 182 lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19. Ten of those cases were confirmed within the past 24 hours, according to the Wyoming Department of Health’s website.

As of now, the state is strongly encouraging social distancing and face coverings “to the greatest extent possible” if schools decide to resume full physical operations.

“Can’t predict” COVID-19’s movement

“We hope that when school starts we aren’t having the spike we’re having right now,” said Brown, who added that over the next month a group of local educators will be refining the details of the plan within the context of the pandemic’s movement.

“If (this spiking) continues to happen, they may put an ordinance in the city or county that we all have to wear masks. I can’t predict that, but we would just love to start school about as normal as we can.”

LCSD2 officials also are keeping an eye on COVID-19’s spread as they draft their plan.

“In our part of the county, we don’t have any cases at all, but over in Cheyenne – that’s where many of the cases are,” said Abrams, who added that he’s grateful for the latitude the state is giving to individual districts, which are each experiencing the pandemic differently.

Abrams said transportation ranks among the district’s top reopening concerns.

“It’s much easier to (enforce social distancing) when you get everybody in school and in the classroom, but when you get everybody on the same bus, that creates some unique challenges,” Abrams said. The district polled parents to ask if they would be willing to transport students to school individually, if needed. According to Abrams, around 80% said yes.

“We don’t anticipate that that’s going to happen, but we have tremendous support from parents if, indeed, that’s the case,” said Abrams, who added that the full results of the district’s reopening survey will be available sometime next week.

LCSD1 also sent out a survey to gauge parents’ and students’ reactions to certain reopening proposals, but Brown said those results will not be available until later this month.

Both districts are consulting with state and county health officials throughout the planning process.

Brown said that of the four categories the state is asking districts to consider – communication, safety and wellness, school operations, and instruction and technology – navigating the element of safety and wellness is the most challenging.

“We’re not experts in that,” Brown said, noting that because the district’s social distancing and other public health policies will be informed by evolving professional medical opinions, parents, students and teachers will have to be flexible if and when health guidelines change what learning looks like.

“Throughout this pandemic, there have been frustrations,” said Steve Newton, director of instruction for LCSD1. He’s been working with Brown and other administrators since March to adapt learning to the COVID-19 era.

Under the guidance from the state, if a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19, the building could potentially close for several days for sanitization.

In these uncertain times, Newton said it’s important for people to remember that “the kinds of decisions we make that might alter families’ plans are only made with the best interest of the students in mind.”

LCSD2 officials have planned a work session for next Tuesday, which will focus on refining the reopening plan. Brown said his team will be prepared to present a draft of their plan to the LCSD1 Board of Trustees at its upcoming meeting July 13.

Kathryn Palmer is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s education reporter. She can be reached at kpalmer@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3167. Follow her on Twitter at @kathrynbpalmer.

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