CHEYENNE – It’s unclear if Wyoming’s public schools will reopen in two weeks as planned – or what a delay could mean for the 93,832 students enrolled.
So far, it's meant canceling the annual statewide assessment, known as WY-TOPP.
For Laramie County School District 1, Wyoming’s largest K-12 district, it could soon mean remote learning.
About a week ago, soon after health officials confirmed the first case of COVID-19 in the state, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jilian Balow and Gov. Mark Gordon recommended that all of Wyoming’s 48 school districts close through April 3. Within days, the majority, including LCSD1 and LCSD2 heeded the warning.
The unexpected time outside of the classroom, however, “really jeopardizes the validity and reliability of any statewide assessment at this time,” Balow said.
The state has administered WY-TOPP for two years, and uses it to collect data on how closely students in grades three through eight perform to grade level.
Moving forward, it will reuse last year’s data in place of this year’s missing data. Balow said that's because at this point in the school year, “We’re too close to the assessment window, and we’re not even sure if we’re opening the schools back up in time for (WY-TOPP).”
Balow – along with numerous other state education chiefs – obtained waivers from the U.S. Department of Education on Friday that allows Wyoming to skip testing this spring.
LCSD1 Superintendent Boyd Brown said Monday that he’s grateful for the department’s “wise” decision.
“Trying to be able to assess all of our students and not knowing whether they would have accessibility to the devices to be able to do that would make it problematic for the district,” Brown said.
Brown said the district is also confirming date changes for other big standardized tests, like the ACT and the Advanced Placement subject matter tests.
Monday evening, the state Department of Education released a memo saying it has canceled all March dates for the ACT, but recommends administering an online version April 21. The state is also working with ACT to investigate the possibility of giving the test in May or next fall. The College Board, which oversees the AP program, has announced that it will deliver tests online.
But even with the untangling of standardized testing kinks, “there are more unknowns than knowns,” said Balow, who’s been holding regular meetings with Wyoming’s superintendents in hopes of ironing out the wrinkles of a school year in flux.
As the number COVID-19 cases continue to proliferate, Balow said she’s asked all superintendents “to start thinking about a Plan B” beyond April, which is when most schools in Wyoming are planning to reopen.
What exactly those alternative plans will look like is up to each individual district.
“It won’t be a statewide plan,” Balow said. “We will set up a framework that essentially puts some expectations and requirements in place, but we believe the best choices are made at the district level.”
LCSD1, which has closed its buildings and halted all new instruction until its scheduled reopening April 7, has already started working on Plan B. Monday afternoon, the district released a memo outlining a backup plan for remote instruction if the schools stay shut.
Brown, who said he’s “planning to go ahead and have remote learning through the end of the year,” has already stated that the district doesn’t have the infrastructure to deliver equitable online instruction to its 14,261 students.
“We’re trying to get all of our teachers to contact our students to find out what kind of technology and connectivity their families have,” said Brown, who also said teachers would be sending home paper-based learning packets.
Teachers this week will start connecting with students and their families, according to the memo. If schools do not reopen April 7, students in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade will focus on English language arts and math, and teachers will embed other disciplines when they can.
For students in seventh through 12th grade, teachers will streamline prioritized standards. When it comes to electives like art and music, teachers will have to improvise and get "creative," according to the memo. Furthermore, students with specialized learning needs will also receive all assigned work, and the district will work with parents for accommodations.
Kathy Vetter, a former public school teacher and president of the Wyoming Education Association, said she’s concerned that makeshift remote learning plans will affect the state’s commitment to providing students with an equitable education.
“If every family had an internet connection, books at home and was able to connect with their teacher remotely, I’d look at it possibly being equitable,” Vetter said. “But knowing that is not the case, it’s really going to be difficult to hold students accountable for their learning if they don’t have access to the resources.”