Let’s make one thing clear from the start: We REALLY hope children of all ages are able to return to local classrooms next month. Because we know how difficult this past spring was for parents, teachers and, most of all, the kids themselves.
With the exception of those who are fully committed to homeschooling their children or have enrolled them in an effective virtual school, few would argue it’s better for young people to learn from home. Though everyone did their best in those initial weeks of the COVID-19 shutdown, parents and guardians are often busy with their own work, and only able to give partial attention to whether their kids are properly completing the assignments in their take-home packets or being distracted by the television, video games, pets, etc.
Most children need to be in a classroom, with a professional educator who can see firsthand whether they are grasping what’s being taught or need some extra one-on-one help. For their mental and psychological well-being, they need to be able to socialize with others their age. And they need to interact with peers and adults in order to learn important life skills, such as teamwork, good manners and responsibility.
So if we can all agree on that, let’s move on to the subject of how to make that happen – safely – in the middle of a global pandemic. On July 1, the Wyoming Department of Education released its Smart Start Guidance, a 25-page document designed to help the state’s 48 K-12 school districts tailor a plan to reopen schools while limiting the spread of COVID-19 as much as possible.
The document includes recommendations like mandatory face coverings, widespread hand sanitizer stations and lunch in classrooms. It also suggests districts consider whether students need to be screened and/or have their temperature checked before getting on a school bus or entering a building; establishing a “tech help line” and weekend tech support for parents and students; and holding P.E. classes outside whenever possible.
It calls for districts to consider how to offer both remote education (a teacher in a classroom with some students present and others at home) and virtual education (all students and teachers in separate locations).
It also wisely offers guidance for three tiers of education options: 1) fully open; 2) a combination of in-person instruction with possible intermittent closures and quarantining students and staff; and 3) the full closure of school buildings, as happened at the end of the last school year.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow set an Aug. 3 deadline for districts to file their plan with the state. But we encourage them to complete these plans even earlier, then use every medium available to spread the word and answer the inevitable questions as early as possible. Because families need to make plans, and the longer they have to wait, the more anxious they become, depending on their individual circumstances.
For example, a local pediatrician who cares for Steven, a 9-year-old severe asthmatic, tells his parents they need to do everything in their power to keep him from contracting the novel coronavirus. If he does get it, it could cost him his life. How will Steven’s parents make sure he doesn’t fall behind in school?
Or what about Emma, who lives in a small, multi-generational home with her mother and grandmother? Though her mom isn’t too concerned about Emma getting sick, she is extremely worried about the possibility of Emma carrying COVID-19 home and infecting her grandmother, who is elderly and has other high-risk factors. What options exist for Emma’s education?
Or what about Jim, the high school science teacher who’s recovering from cancer and is immunocompromised? How can he have both a career and his health?
These and so many other questions are forefront in the minds of not just Laramie County residents, but many others across our country. Yet instead of answers and financial support from the federal government, they see the president on television and Twitter this past week trying to force governors to fully open schools nationwide by threatening to cut future funding if they don’t.
Thankfully, Gov. Mark Gordon and Wyoming’s other Republican leaders aren’t yielding to that nonsense. They’re sticking with their more thoughtful, measured approach, which includes accounting for the very real possibility of future surges in COVID-19 cases. And in a state that strongly believes in local control, they’re leaving it up to local district officials to take that guidance, customize it for their area and prepare for opening day – in other words, hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.
In addition to the scenarios already outlined, some of the other questions we hope Laramie County school officials address include:
What happens when a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19? Will the entire school shut down, and, if so, for how long?
What will be done with students who refuse to wear a mask or, because of their age or maturity level, can’t wear it all day properly?
What about special needs students or those with medical conditions that don’t allow them to wear masks? Will they be allowed to wear face shields instead? Will they be required to stay home? If the latter, how will they be taught?
What lessons were learned in the spring that will help virtual learning be more effective if it’s needed during the coming school year?
As with many other leadership positions in these difficult, uncertain times, it’s got to be tough to be a school administrator right now. How do you know whether you’re doing enough to protect students, staff, parents and the community at large, while also fulfilling your mandate to provide the best possible education to the next generation?
Our thoughts and prayers go out to everyone involved in making these difficult decisions. We know it’s not easy, but we also know they’ve been thinking about it for some time now. We can’t wait to see what they’ve come up with.