CHEYENNE – The clock is ticking for Wyoming’s largest school district to finalize and submit a school reopening plan to the state Department of Education by Monday.
Laramie County School District 1 Superintendent Boyd Brown and several other district officials met with the LCSD1 Board of Trustees both Monday and Wednesday to gather input and relay information about what this school year will look like. Some of the trustees and officials attended the meeting in person, while others – and the public – logged in to the live video chat.
Masks and a modified high school course schedule will be a part of this school year, which is set to start next month.
In March, the district joined nearly every other district in the state and nation when it transitioned all students and teachers to remote instruction in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. To date, the virus has killed 26 Wyomingites and more than 152,000 Americans.
Throughout the month of July, however, Laramie County has seen a spike in the number of confirmed cases.
That led to Gov. Mark Gordon to announce Tuesday an extension of the state’s public health orders through Aug. 15.
LCSD1 is scheduled to reopen its schools Aug. 24.
The draft reopening plan, which can be found in full at www.laramie1.org, was written with guidance from the education department and local health officials. The plan is three-tiered, meaning that depending on the number and severity of COVID-19 cases, schools could operate in person, remotely or a hybrid of the two. There is also a new longterm virtual school option for families who are interested, and 302 students have already enrolled.
Brown said that right now, he is expecting the district to open in tier one, which means most students will receive instruction in physical classrooms, but with new health precautions, social distancing will occur, and masks will be used where social distancing is not possible. Any students or employees who feel sick are strongly encouraged to stay home.
“Everyone would wear masks unless they can be socially distanced in the classroom by 6 feet,” Brown said Monday. “The only time they wouldn’t have to wear a mask is if they have a doctor’s note or individualized education program (that exempts masks), or if they are exercising vigorously.”
Chairwoman Marguerite Herman asked what kind of capacity each classroom has to spread desks 6 feet apart.
“The short answer is that most of us will be wearing masks at all times,” said Brown, who explained that many of the buildings are already at or over capacity and simply cannot accommodate spreading desks 6 feet apart.
The state will provide the school district one mask per child, and the district also is asking families to have at least two backup masks for each of their school-aged children.
Trustee Rich Wiederspahn asked if it’s a realistic expectation that very young children will wear masks and that teachers will be able to enforce it.
Brown acknowledged those concerns, but said, “It’s important to go ahead and (wear masks)” because that is what state health officials, who are informed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recommended as recently as Tuesday.
Trustee Lynn Storey-Huylar asked if individual school buildings would be forming their own internal reopening plans – and emphasized that she’s received several inquiries along those lines from parents.
“Yes, we’re working on that,” said Brown, who added that it’s already in the works, and that building leaders also are planning to meet next week to ensure cohesion in their plans.
“If it’s safe to open schools, why aren’t we meeting in person?” one teacher, who identified as Mr. Atkinson (their first name and spelling of their last name was not available at the virtual meeting), asked Brown on Monday night.
Brown said the virtual meetings are a matter of convenience, and added Wednesday that board members will hold more in-person meetings.
But Atkinson pushed back.
“I think that’s not necessarily true. You’ve got members of your board who seem to also be worried about getting sick,” he said. “Us as teachers, will we be offered that same amount of flexibility?”
Brown said there are some options for teachers with health concerns – priority for several open positions for Cheyenne Virtual School will be given to those with documented medical concerns. He said teachers should contact the human resources department if they have worries about working in person during the pandemic.
Teachers who have to quarantine will be able to use their accrued sick leave, and, in some cases, can tap into the extended sick leave options created by the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act.
It is unclear how deep the pool of substitute teachers will be this year.
Students and teachers at the district’s three traditional high schools will also have a modified course schedule.
Instead of completing eight courses over an entire school year, they’ll take four courses one semester and four in another – much like how many colleges and Triumph High School already operate. Brown said that’s in an effort to reduce the number of people teachers and students interact with throughout the day.
Middle schoolers and elementary students will keep their current schedules.
“There’s a lot of acrimony out there regarding this change,” Wiederspahn said, advocating that core subjects, like math and English, be taught year-round to create consistency.
“Having math every day throughout the whole school year is how we create better math students,” he said. “Parents are feeling like they had no input in this situation, and many aren’t feeling comfortable with it.”
Brown said that neither total instructional time, nor the number of credits students earn, will change, and this decision was made, in part, because CDC guidance has recommended the four-by-four course model.
Steve Newton, director of instruction, added that research suggests there is no difference in student outcomes between the eight-course and four-course model, and that the four-course model would also allow students to focus on fewer classes at once.
“As a board member, I’m comfortable that this is a COVID-related change,” Storey-Huylar said, echoing other trustees who called for a reevaluation of the change when the pandemic subsides. “What I don’t want this to be is the new normal.”
Brown agreed, adding, “We’re just looking at trying to stay safe this year.”