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School bus driver Krystle Bailey wipes her bus down with custodial disinfectant Wex-Cide 128 on Friday, Aug. 28, 2020, in Cheyenne. School bus drivers for Laramie County School District 1 will wipe their buses down after every route, spray every boarding student’s hands with hand sanitizer, and run a fogging machine inside the school bus twice a day to spray disinfectant chemicals to assure student safety. Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – Reopening Wyoming’s largest public school district in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic presented parents with tough choices ahead of the 2020-21 school year, which starts Monday.

Do they send their kids back for in-person instruction, which will include mandatory mask-wearing, social distancing and possible shutdowns? Do they send their kids to the new district-run Cheyenne Virtual School, which they have to commit to for at least one quarter of the year? Or do they go out on their own and find a homeschooling option for their children?

When schools shut down for in-person instruction back in March, all 14,261 students enrolled in Laramie County School District 1 and their teachers were forced to make a sudden transition to remote learning.

For many parents, that meant figuring out how to juggle work, child care and new roles as de facto teacher’s aids. Those experiences, combined with the ever-changing status of the virus, informed each parent’s decision about what to do this school year.

An exact statistical breakdown of how many students chose each option will not be available until early September, according to Tracey Kinney, LCSD1’s assistant superintendent of instruction.

The Wyoming Tribune Eagle interviewed three mothers about the factors they weighed before deciding on the best learning environment for their children this year.

Each chose a different schooling option.

These are their stories:

In-person learning

Leslie Vallee has three children enrolled in LCSD1, including a 7-year-old son with a severe hearing impairment who requires an individualized education program.

When schools closed in March, Vallee said all three of her children “had a complete meltdown” when they realized they wouldn’t be able to see their friends or interact with their teachers in the classroom.

On top of that, she didn’t know how to help her hearing-impaired son with his lessons.

“Even his special education teachers were doing everything they could think of to help me. We tried one-on-one Zoom calls. We tried pre-recorded videos. But his attention to just watch a computer screen wasn’t there at all,” said Vallee, who is not particularly concerned about the virus itself.

At first, she thought homeschooling would be the best option for this school year because of concerns over intermittent shutdowns. According to the district’s state-approved school reopening plan, if the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases reaches a certain threshold and the health department orders it, schools could go partially or fully remote for days, weeks or possibly months.

“With homeschooling, you’re a little more in charge about what you do and when you do it,” said Vallee, who dismissed the idea of sending her kids to Cheyenne Virtual School because she was already soured on the idea of remote instruction.

But last month, she and her husband decided on sending their children back to Alta Vista Elementary for modified in-person instruction. “Trying to juggle homeschooling for three kids at three different grade levels and three different curriculums was going to be too much for me. I’m not a licensed teacher,” she said.

Ultimately, their decision came down to the issue of socialization.

“It’s better for kids to be around other kids and in school,” she said. “If you have a parent who’s dedicated to homeschooling and has the network to find other homeschool families, that’s cool. For us, we don’t. I wanted them to go off and make new friendships. It seemed like school was the best place to do that.”

Moreover, Vallee is aiming to go back to school herself to pursue a career as a certified nursing assistant, which means she’ll be in class from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the school week.

“It does put a wrench in scheduling, for sure,” she said. “If schools abruptly stopped, we’d have to find someone to help them with their school work during the day, or we’d have to do it at night.” For now, she’s hoping for the best as her kids prepare for their first day on Monday.

One question that remains for Vallee is how her hearing-impaired son, who relies on lip reading and sign language to communicate, will learn when all of his teachers are wearing masks.

“I talked to his interpreter and teacher yesterday, and they seem to have a plan in place,” she said. “We’ll see how that goes.”

Home-school

Amy Heath, who has a rising kindergartener and second grader, thought this was going to be the year she returned to work. She’s already taken several years off from her marketing career to care for her youngest son, who was born prematurely and still experiences serious lung-related health issues.

With the prospect of two incomes – her husband has always worked full-time – the couple envisioned saving money to buy a house.

Then, last spring, COVID-19 hit, schools closed and those plans were put on hold.

“It happened so abruptly, but we were so thankful that we had our youngest son home at that point, and we didn’t have to process what being in school could do to his health,” said Heath, who questions how well the district will be able to enforce social distancing and other safety measures.

“We watched things closely this summer and realized that schools were likely going to open back up here. But we still felt that we would need to take a virtual option.”

Heath considered sending her eldest son to Cheyenne Virtual School, but decided against it when she learned he wouldn’t be able to participate in the gifted program he’d enjoyed last year.

“It felt like we were forced to choose home-school,” she said, adding that she “couldn’t imagine (her son) sitting in front of a computer all day.”

Most accredited home-school programs offer a mix of self-paced virtual and paper-based lessons.

“When we looked at home-school curriculums, we found that you can access lessons from the grade above and below. It would be a lot more flexible in terms of his pace of learning. And we thought he needed access to more difficult material.”

While both of her children will use a home-school curriculum to start off the school year, Heath looks forward to the day when they can both go back to in-person instruction. But because of her youngest son’s health concerns, Heath is waiting until scientists develop a COVID-19 vaccine.

“We’ve kind of prepared our oldest for potentially going back in person in January,” Heath said. “But we’re thinking even then we might have to keep his brother home with (home-schooling) through kindergarten.”

Cheyenne Virtual School

Carla Demelas had a difficult time adapting to remote learning last spring.

“It was not fun at all. It was a very hard transition, and not very smooth,” said Demelas, who didn’t have enough computers at home for each of her three elementary school-aged children to focus on their individual lessons. The school district has since used federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act money to buy each student in the district a device.

“That will be a huge help,” Demelas said.

This year, she’s sending all of her kids to Cheyenne Virtual School in hopes that it will be more consistent than last year’s remote learning experiment.

Demelas weighed each of the three schooling options available, but quickly decided against in-person instruction. There were too many unknowns surrounding the reopening plan, she said. For example, she wonders what would happen to her kids if their teacher tested positive for COVID. How would that affect their household?

“My kids wanted to go back to ‘normal,’ mainly to see their friends. But the normal they knew wasn’t going to be there. They didn’t want to wear masks all day, they wanted to be able to hug their friends,” she said.

“After explaining to our children that in-person school would not be what they remembered, all three said they didn’t want to do that option.”

Only in the past few weeks, however, did Demelas and her husband make a final decision between home-schooling and enrolling their kids in the virtual school.

“It was a really hard decision. Virtual is a good mixture between both in-person and homeschooling,” she said. “They still have a classroom setting.They still have a teacher they have to be accountable to. And I don’t have to be a teacher. We just felt like that was the best for us.”

Demelas does hope to send her children back to in-person school eventually, but said that for now virtual school is the best fit.

“If this year has taught us anything, it’s to take things day by day,” she said. “We’re just winging it.”

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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