CHEYENNE – With the start of school two weeks away, teachers across the country are preparing for an unprecedented academic year.

While many school districts are starting the academic year remotely in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 – which has so far killed 28 Wyomingites and more than 160,000 Americans total – Wyoming’s largest school district is planning to open Aug. 24 for modified in-person instruction. That will include regular health screenings, socially distanced classrooms, when possible, and wearing face masks when social distancing isn’t possible. Despite those precautions, which public health officials have approved, several of Laramie County School District 1’s 1,344 educators remain concerned for their safety.

“Anxious, scared and nervous”

“This is the first year that I have not felt that new school year excitement about going back into the classroom,” Tracy Clement, an elementary special education teacher and incoming president of the Cheyenne Teachers Education Association, told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle via email.

“Rather, I feel anxious, scared and nervous for myself, and for everyone in the school setting. I dread the day that someone I know gets sick with the virus.”

When the pandemic first hit the United States back in March, LCSD1 shut down all in-person instruction and transitioned to remote learning. Over the summer, the Wyoming Department of Education issued guidance on how to safely reopen, and the district submitted its reopening plan for approval last week. The plan includes three tiers of instruction.

Tier one, which is the plan the district is using to start the school year, most closely resembles traditional classroom instruction. If an individual classroom or school building – or possibly the entire district – sees an outbreak of cases, students and teachers could temporarily shut down and transition to tier two, which is a hybrid of remote and in-person instruction. If the number of cases spikes past a certain threshold and guidance from health officials warrants it, schools could go to tier three, which calls for a fully remote learning model.

The WTE reached out to more than 10 LCSD1 teachers, but only a handful agreed to go on record and voice their concerns about reopening during a pandemic which is showing no signs of subsiding.

A public records request for recent emails sent to the district, however, revealed that many educators do have strong feelings about the safety risks involved with reopening for in-person instruction.

“Why are we opening schools at tier one?,” Jennifer Gough, an occupational therapist in the district, asked LCSD1 Trustee Nate Breen in an email. “Why is the district not bringing forth measures to introduce hybrid models that ensure some in-person and remote learning while also reducing risk?“

“The current (highest risk) plan appears to introduce unnecessary experimental outcomes that may be more easily mitigated by initially starting the school year with a hybrid model program.”

That email was sent July 27, days before the district moved forward with finalizing its strategy for opening in person.

”Teachers are not expendable”

As recently as last week, Kim Amen, a third grade teacher at Pioneer Park Elementary, told the WTE she’d still prefer to start off the school year with the hybrid option. Although she “believes strongly that students benefit from being in class with other students,” she also “feels that safety has to be of the utmost importance.”

Susan Cantor, who identified herself as a former teacher, made her worries exceptionally clear in an email sent to all of the LCSD1 trustees.

“Teachers are not expendable. Teachers’ families are not expendable. Children are not expendable,” Cantor wrote on July 23. “I beg you to do virtual learning for the first semester so that my friends and family don’t get a death sentence.”

Steve Newton, director of instruction for LCSD1, said he’s seen plenty of similar comments from teachers, but reopening for in-person instruction is beyond the district’s control.

“If we’re declared that we’re in a tier one environment, schools cannot choose to drop down to a tier two or three plan. A suggestion urging us to do that is simply outside of what we’re allowed to do,” he said. “It works the opposite way, as well. If our county health officials now say we’re in a tier two learning environment and close (schools), we don’t have the luxury to say we’re keeping it open.”

Jessica Smith-Burt, who identified herself as a “specialist at one of the elementary schools in town,” emailed LCSD1 Board of Trustees Chair Marguerite Herman on July 9 to ask, “What is going to happen to the multitude of staff that have preexisting conditions or family members with these conditions that put them in a high-risk group?”

Smith-Burt wrote that last year she knew “of at least one teacher per grade level, 3 specialists and several (paraprofessionals) who fall into this category” in her building alone.

The results of the WTE’s public records request also suggest there are numerous others with health conditions that put them at an increased risk of contracting the virus and falling seriously ill.

“I am considered high risk for COVID due to heart issues, diabetes and needing to use a CPAP for sleep apnea,” Keith Thomson, a librarian at Bain Elementary, wrote in an email to Breen. “Are there options for employees who are high risk and might not be able to return for safety reasons?”

“Maybe they need to look for something else”

In another email sent to LCSD1’s senior leadership, outgoing CTEA President Joy Fawcett listed a number of concerns members have expressed, and most of them regarded safety protocols.

“We have teachers that are high risk/health issues that want to teach, but comments have been made to the fact that ‘Maybe they need to look for something else.’ This is not supportive of their concerns about returning to the classroom,” Fawcett wrote.

In a follow-up email to the WTE, Fawcett insisted that since that email was sent on July 26, “Our district has been quite supportive of offering flexible opportunities for leave.” But she offered no specifics.

The email she sent two weeks ago was “illustrative of the angst and concern felt by many of our members before plans were developed and released.”

Public records show that LCSD1 has considered offering some employees early retirement.

“We felt if we had staff who are compromised and have a lot of leave, they would miss most of the year, and we already have limited substituted,” LCSD1 Superintendent Boyd Brown wrote in an email to district leadership. At the time of that email, at least four staff members said they would accept the offer.

As of Friday afternoon, Brown said the school board chose not to move forward with that plan, and the district is instead focusing on working with each teacher individually to address working conditions.

The district, which is opening the Cheyenne Virtual School this year, has also said that teachers who are at high risk can apply to teach there, which would be entirely online. At a school board meeting last month, district officials revealed that more than 800 students said they would like to enroll in the virtual school, which would require about eight full-time teachers.

“What if there are more teachers who have risk factors than you have online positions for? How will you accommodate them?,” Smith-Burt asked in her email to Herman, adding that she’s “not trying to be difficult,” but has “heard from many parents and staff members alike that these issues of concern are important to address in order for all stakeholders to feel safe if we are returning in August.”

As of Friday, Newton, who oversees instruction, said enrollment at the virtual school is almost over 1,000 students, and the final numbers will dictate the volume of staff needed.

Newton said with the exception of one or two teachers, everyone who has demonstrated a medical need has already received an assignment to accommodate that. “Contrary to what some have suggested – that hundreds are coming forward – the number is much lower. Almost all of the cases have been reassigned. The others will be, too; it just hasn’t happened yet.”

”Don’t want to take the chance” substituting

Under normal circumstances, full-time teachers would use their paid leave if they need time off for illness. They’ll still use some of that to cover a quarantine-related absence, but the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act will also cover up to 12 weeks of paid leave.

If some teachers do have to take extended virus-related leaves, Smith-Burt, the teacher who sent the message to Herman, asked if there will be enough substitute teachers to fill in for them.

She described a scenario last school year in which she was ill for a week, and no substitutes were available to cover her class, so other teachers and paraprofessionals had to take turns delivering a patchwork of lessons.

“It was a mess,” Smith-Burt wrote, theorizing that it could become an even bigger problem this year because “many people would not be willing to sign up for that job at this point because it could mean walking into a room where every one of the kids could expose you to COVID.”

Those were the fears that led longtime substitute teacher Carl Aisenbrey to retire earlier than planned.

“There’s too many uncertainties about the virus and how it spreads. I just don’t want to take the chance,” said Aisenbrey, who has only left his home a handful of times since the pandemic started.

He said he fully understands the need for certain hands-on courses, like welding or theater, but that perhaps some of the other reading-based classes could have stayed remote. “I always liked being in the classroom and helping young people, but I just have to turn it over to someone else.”

John Weigel, assistant superintendent of human resources, said in an email to the WTE that the district currently has 313 subs available. “I do not feel there is a shortage. However, depending on how many teachers are in need of a sub for a particular day will determine if we have enough subs who are available to support the absences.”

Tara Russell, who is a substitute teacher and former school board candidate, said she’s planning on working this school year while she can. With two young children in school, however, she’ll have to stay home with them if they have to transition to remote learning.

“Getting COVID is not at the forefront of my brain,” said Russell, who is more anxious over the unknowns ahead. “I have some reservations about it, but I don’t think that my reservations outweigh me subbing in a classroom.”

”My life matters, too”

Regardless of health concerns, the majority of teachers in LCSD1 will be returning to their classrooms this fall – and will remain there unless public health guidance pushes them into either hybrid or fully remote work.

Preparing for all three scenarios has consumed many teachers’ summers.

Amy Simpson, a veteran educator who teaches music at Hobbs Elementary, told the WTE that the past few months have been “UNBELIEVABLY stressful, spending many more hours trying to prepare for any situation that might occur. ... I am prepared for what I believe WILL happen, which is a shutdown. I am currently creating alternate versions of my lesson plans.”

Although Simpson said she’d give the district “a big thumbs up” when it comes to professional and technological support during the pandemic, it hasn’t alleviated her trepidation over the virus.

“My life matters, too,” Simpson said. “With hundreds of kids going in and out of my room daily, it scares me, and I don’t believe the district has shown any concern for the well-being of staff and students. Purchasing hand sanitizer and tissues is NOT the answer.”

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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