digital education STOCK

CHEYENNE – Wyoming’s largest school district is finalizing its COVID-19-era school reopening plan. So far, it includes opening a virtual district-run K-12 school, the possibility for building shutdowns and some face mask requirements.

Laramie County School District 1 Superintendent Boyd Brown, along with other top district officials, presented the proposed reopening plan – which must be submitted to the Wyoming Department of Education by Aug. 3 – to the LCSD1 Board of Trustees at a virtual meeting Monday night.

The district plans to hold several meetings with different committees and stakeholders throughout the month before it submits its final plan.

At every turn, Brown reiterated the sentiment that the plan is “written in pencil, and not ink,” and that how schools operate this coming school year will depend on what local and state health officials say is safe.

While Wyoming’s positive COVID-19 caseload is much smaller than most other states, Laramie County has seen a spike in recent weeks, which has included at least one student who attended summer band practice at South High School, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle confirmed Monday.

Masks required on buses, in hallways

As it stands now, Brown said the county health officials he’s in regular contact with have said that face masks should be required on school buses and while students are transitioning between classrooms and buildings, but not when they are in classrooms with a socially distanced setup.

Some exceptions to the bus requirement might be made for athletes who are already spending long periods of time in close proximity.

“I say that, again, ‘with pencil,’ because by the time school starts in August, we may have different orders come out,” said Brown, who added that there is a possibility that failure to comply with face mask requirements could become a part of the district’s discipline matrix.

“There’s a political issue of wearing masks, so we’re dealing with that, as well. We’re going to try to stay out of that and just follow what our health officials are telling us,” Brown added.

Trustee Rich Wiederspahn asked Brown if the district would be providing COVID-19 testing to students.

Brown said no, parents would have to find a way to get their children tested at a local clinic, but health officials have told him they have no concerns about the test shortages that have been reported in other cities.

“If you do have a COVID case come up – are we getting any direction?,” board vice chair Rose Ann Million Rinne asked. “Or are we going to have to close down that class? Will we evaluate students in this class and trace where every student has been? How disruptive is this going to be for everyone else who isn’t going to be exposed and likely to get COVID?”

Brown, again, said that would depend on what health officials say in that particular moment of the pandemic, which has so far killed 21 Wyomingites and 131,000 Americans.

“We may wind up closing the school down for one or two days overall to make sure we get it clean and disinfected,” Brown said before he delved into a few more scenarios of how the virus could affect in-person learning next year. In every one, Brown said the response would be made in consultation with local health officials.

“If there’s an issue with that, we may have to quarantine one class or multiple classes. … If we have an outbreak that has a bunch of our students go down, we may have to shut down our school for a quarantine period of 14 days.”

Similar rules would apply to school faculty and staff who might have been exposed to the virus.

Rinne followed up that question by asking, “What happens when a teacher gets sick – what are we doing to support them?”

John Weigel, the district’s assistant superintendent of human resources, said the district would work with individual teachers on how to utilize sick leave and the federal Family and Medical Leave Act to cover any health-related absences.

LCSD1 to operate new virtual school

Although many students might be eager to return to traditional in-person learning, the pandemic has also prompted the district to open Cheyenne Virtual School, which will open this fall as a K-12 district school and operate entirely online.

LCSD1 recently surveyed families in the district about their preferences for learning this fall, and 844 students surveyed said they’d prefer to pursue virtual education if the district offered it.

When LCSD1 shut down physical operations in March and transitioned to remote learning to slow the spread of COVID-19, Brown said then that LCSD1 didn’t have the “infrastructure” to provide online instruction to more than 14,000 students. Now, the district stands to receive around $4.5 million in federal funding through the CARES Act, and has already said it plans to use some of that money to invest in learning technology.

The virtual school would allow its students to learn in a remote setting – which would be closely monitored with specific benchmarks – while still earning the same credits they would at one of Cheyenne’s other public high schools.

Students who enroll in the school would be expected to remain there for at least one quarter or semester. The reopening plan also has guidance for students who have to temporarily leave in-person instruction, but those students would not integrate themselves into established virtual school classes. Instead, they would communicate virtually with the same teacher they had in person.

The district has created a new full-time principal position to oversee the new virtual school. The listing closed Monday, but the annual salary range was posted at $93,444 to $127,635.

There are also another eight vacant teaching positions within the district that could potentially be used to staff the virtual school.

Brown said once it gets off the ground, there is a possibility that the virtual school would remain a permanent fixture of the district.

“There will be students who get into the virtual school and say, ‘This is not for me.’ So we expect that we might have more students in it next year than the year after that,” said Brown, who noted the district might use one-year teacher contracts and half-time staffing to settle its staffing needs at the new school.

“I think it will be something that we’ll wind up with a calling for – people will be interested in doing virtual education.”

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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