CHEYENNE – The Laramie County School District 1 Board of Trustees approved the district’s reopening plan Monday night, the same day it was due to the Wyoming Department of Education.
Widespread sanitation, face mask use and social distancing measures are the highlights of the district’s strategy, which will guide the start of in-person instruction later this month. The plan also outlines how learning will happen if a viral outbreak forces the closure of individual classrooms, buildings or the entire district.
“This really should be a community effort to control the prevalence of the disease,” Laramie County Health Officer Dr. Stan Hartman said at the meeting. He and other health officials have guided the drafting of the district’s reopening plan.
Class, building and district-level closures will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, Hartman said, but added that “If people would wear masks, that really will help us keep the schools open.”
Physical operations ceased back in March, after the novel coronavirus took hold in the United States. To date, the virus has killed 27 Wyomingites and a total of more than 158,000 Americans.
Both Trustees Nate Breen and Tim Bolin introduced amendments to delay the Aug. 24 start date of this school year – Breen by five days and Bolin by two days – to give teachers more time to adjust to the changes before students arrive. Both amendments died, however.
Weighing the 4x4 high school schedule
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of reopening is the district’s plan to temporarily implement a 4x4 course schedule for students at Central, East and South high schools. In an effort to reduce the number of personal interactions each day, principals at those schools have proposed that students take four courses one semester and four in the other, instead of taking eight courses throughout the school year.
The board will make its final decision on that next week, but engaged in heavy discussion of the issue Monday.
The district has made clear that this change would not reduce instructional time or the number of credits students are eligible to earn, and that an effort will be made to mix core classes with electives each semester. Students taking AP exams will have some refresher classes prior to the exam, and individual AP teachers are still weighing how best to serve their students throughout the year.
The three high school principals met with parents, teachers and trustees last week to discuss the 4x4 schedule proposal, which is not included in the plan now awaiting state approval.
In addition to the social distancing explanation, East High School Principal Sam Mirich said the new schedule is an attempt to ease the anxieties that could arise from a sudden shutdown.
“What we found during the shutdown (last spring) was that teachers having 150 kids and eight classes, and students having eight classes to worry about – it was overwhelming,” Mirich said. “We’d like to think we’ll be out of the woods soon, but we’re in the middle of the woods right now. It’s scary because anything could happen where we have either a partial or full shutdown. If that happens academically, with our previous schedule, we would be overwhelmed.”
Some students voice opposition to change
However, some students fear it will limit their year-round participation in elective courses, like band and speech and debate, and preparation time for AP exams, which are administered by the College Board in the spring.
Last week, a concerned student created an online petition speaking out against the move. As of Monday night, it had 1,250 signatures.
At least two of the students who opposed the change showed up at the board meeting – in which the trustees and senior leadership attended in person and the rest of the public came virtually – with posters, expressing their disapproval of the change.
“No 4x4 change without student representation! Student voices matter,” read Jonnina Edmunds’ sign. She’s taking four AP courses at East this year and doesn’t want to forget the material she learns this fall by the time she tests in May.
“If it’s really that big of a deal for us to be socially distanced, then why are we having sports? Why are we having band?” she questioned ahead of the meeting.
Trustee Rich Wiederspahn echoed several other trustees when he said students and parents have flooded his inbox with similar concerns.
“Is the 4x4 schedule going to be effective for mitigating risks of spreading COVID-19?” he asked Hartman, who was standing by to offer scientific insights into questions concerning reopening.
Hartman said he could not endorse one schedule over another, but the most recent peer-reviewed medical research suggests that high school age students are more likely transmitters of the virus than very young children, which is one of the motivations behind the proposal.
“I do think we need to go with the more cautious and conservative position.”