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Sixth grade teacher Jennifer Leman moves chairs to desks that are 6 feet apart while preparing her classroom for the upcoming school year Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020, inside Meadowlark Elementary School in Cheyenne. The Laramie County School District 1 Board of Trustees voted Tuesday night to begin school on Aug. XX. Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – Local high schoolers will only take four courses per semester during the upcoming school year, and every student in Laramie County School District 1 will start school Aug. 31, which is a week later than the original start date.

The Laramie County School District 1 Board of Trustees voted to approve both measures Tuesday night. The 4x4 schedule change, however, has stirred the most controversy.

“I’m going to go with the schedule that’s going to give us the best opportunity to make sure that our students, and their families and our staff are kept safe, so we can continue in-person learning – so we don’t end up like we did last spring,” Trustee Tim Bolin said before he joined four of the other seven members voting in favor of the measure.

After the COVID-19 pandemic forced the district to cease physical operations and transition to remote learning last spring, district officials and the school board spent the summer finalizing plans for starting the school year with in-person instruction. The plan, which the board approved and submitted to the Wyoming Department of Education last week, focuses mostly on social distancing and sanitization measures.

But, just because the school year is expected to begin in person, a spike in COVID-19 cases could force the students and staff to quickly transition to periods of hybrid or entirely remote instruction.

Both safety concerns and a desire to ease the burden of those possible sudden transitions motivated the district’s high school principals to propose the new 4x4 schedule, which is not part of the plan the state has to approve.

Last year, like every year, students at East, Central and South high schools took eight courses throughout the school year.

According to a districtwide poll of students, parents and teachers – which adjusted for serial submissions from the same IP address – parents and staff favored the 4x4 schedule, while students favored last year’s schedule.

East High Principal Sam Mirich said Tuesday that both students and teachers faced major difficulty when they suddenly had to keep up with eight classes remotely. Additionally, fewer classes per day means fewer personal interactions each day, and, in theory, a reduced chance of spreading COVID-19.

“The reason we want to go to 4x4 this year is because of the situation we’re in (with the pandemic),” Mirich told the board. “What we learned last spring was that when we shut down, and kids had eight classes and teachers had six classes, it was overwhelming to kids, teachers and parents.”

“That’s why we want to do this schedule at this time, because it will give us the flexibility to move forward,” Mirich said. “It’s great that we get to start out (all in-person), and I hope we get to stay there. But I also have to be realistic.”

Trustee Lynn Storey-Huylar, who said she approved the plan only after intense internal debate, asked the principals if any of them foresaw making the schedule permanent.

“We may learn a tremendous amount over this year,” South High Principal Phil Thompson said. “It could give us valuable information to say this wasn’t just a one-year fix. Some of it was – I understand music and AP – but I think it gives us an opportunity to say ‘this worked well’ or ‘this didn’t work well.’”

Over the past week, 1,336 people signed an online petition calling for the board to vote against the 4X4 plan and retain the original schedule. Students argued that semester-long courses would make it harder to study for AP exams and participate in year-round electives.

“I feel as if the district has ignored parent and student voices,” Sophia Glennie, the high school student who started the petition, said Tuesday night. “As a student, I feel a little bit betrayed that you, as a board, are even entertaining the idea of continuing the plan through this year, especially considering the opposition to this plan.”

While five of the board members voted to approve the measure, Trustee Christy Klaassen was the only dissenting vote – Chairwoman Marguerite Herman, who only votes to break a tie, did not vote.

“I’m extremely hopeful that we can go back (for in-person learning) and stay there,” Klaassen said. “There’s still a lot of unanswered questions. There’s still a lot of maybes and maybe nots. I just think we owe our students the most normalcy we can give them, and I think we can do it safely.”

Delayed start date

The board also approved a motion to delay the start of this school year by one week, with the intention of giving teachers and families more time to prepare for the year ahead.

A districtwide survey revealed that 5,811 students, parents and staff preferred to start Aug. 31, the date that is now approved, as opposed to 3,508 who wanted to start on the originally planned Aug. 24 date.

That will cause students to miss out on five instructional days, but the district will nonetheless meet the state-mandated requirement of 175 days. The district had originally envisioned using those five extra days to identify any students who are behind after last spring’s remote learning.

“Making sure that people feel comfortable with school starting is important, too,” said LCSD1 Superintendent Boyd Brown. “To try to weigh one against the other is very difficult.

“We were asked to gather feedback from the community, and they’re weighing in on the side of wanting a little more time – students, staff and parents were in favor of waiting until Aug. 31 to start.”

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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