Wyoming officials unveiled a three-tiered set of recommendations Wednesday for how schools might open in the fall, along with a warning that schools could pivot from one mode of operation to another throughout the year as rates of coronavirus infection fluctuate.
The guidelines provide both a safe path to reopening schools and an improved plan for online instruction if that becomes necessary, said Jillian Balow, the state superintendent of education.
“I’m confident that we will be successful, not only in opening schools as we knew them, but also in transforming our school school system to better address the challenges that we faced and to incorporate some of the lessons that we learned,” Balow said.
Schools would welcome all or most students back into classrooms under the first tier laid out in the guidelines, while observing social distancing and mask-wearing.
Tier two would feature in-person instruction alongside intermittent closures or quarantining of specific students and faculty. This is what some people have called a “hybrid” model for reopening schools,” Balow said.
Tier three would lead to the full closure of school buildings and a return to all-virtual education. This would resemble the situation in schools this past spring.
Local districts will have the primary responsibility for determining how they will operate, as long as they follow broad requirements laid out by the state. Individual communities will be better than the state at determining the best way for their schools to reopen, Balow said.
She added that local communities will be best equipped to say when they will need to change their plans, if the number of cases rises in an area.
Albany County School District No. 1 is working on a reopening plan, which should be publicly released soon, Superintendent Jubal Yennie wrote Tuesday in an email.
All school districts in the state must submit their reopening plans to the Department of Education by August 3.
Governor Mark Gordon said that he hoped schools would open to students, but that this depends on people taking personal responsibility, as with the rest of the state’s reopening. He stressed that the situation could change throughout the school year, so districts must have a range of options available to them.
Ending the year with virtual education reminded everyone of how important the classroom learning experience is, Balow said. Many people have told her that the virtual learning did not work as well as traditional in-classroom learning.
“No one was prepared--and I mean no one was prepared--to shift to an adapted learning environment literally overnight,” Balow said.
At the same time, Balow thanked teachers and other school employees for adapting quickly to a difficult situation.
“While school doors closed to students, education remained open for business,” she said.
Multiple Laramie students and parents expressed similar sentiments about online learning in conversations last month.
“It was harder, because I couldn’t ask teachers questions face to face,” said Suzannah Cisneros, who recently finished seventh grade at Laramie Middle School. Teachers were responsive to her questions over email, but she felt that it could not make up for the lack of classroom instruction, and her grades slipped.
This will be the first summer when Cisneros is excited to go back to school, she said.
Bobbi and Brad Herod, also of Laramie, had to serve as technical support and teaching aide to their six children in Albany County schools, who ranged from kindergarten through sixth grade last year.
“They kept asking when they were going back to school,” Bobbi said. Their children missed their teachers, and it was difficult for their children to pay attention to the lessons on the computer.
Although the guidelines laid out by the state Wednesday did not go into specifics on every topic, it is clear that changes are coming to Wyoming schools. Even under the tier one plans, which would be the most similar to normal operation, students, parents and staff would have additional responsibilities.
Parents would be expected to screen their children for symptoms every morning before school, the plan says. Students at all age levels would be expected to sanitize or wash their hands when they enter school.
Masks will not be required during gym classes, which are expected to be held outside when that is possible.
The changes will extend to school buses. Parents will be encouraged to drive students to school, when possible, because social distancing will become even more difficult on buses. If schools must go to tier two, the recommendations say that districts will have to consider additional measures, such as hiring more bus drivers and adding more bus routes.
When it comes to lunch, schools will be required to eliminate self-serve cafeteria options, even under the tier one requirements. The state also recommends that all snack items are individually wrapped, and that water fountains are replaced with some other solution, such as individual water bottles.
Schools will have to disinfect buildings and objects more often and more rigorously under the state guidelines. Points of concern that are raised range from playgrounds to shared items within classrooms. Teachers, janitors, school bus drivers and cafeteria workers will all need to learn new cleaning protocols under the recommendations.
There should be funding available to meet the requirements and guidelines laid out by the state, although the amount has not been determined, Balow said. New costs will include physical changes to some schools, extra demands on school services and potentially hiring staff to meet all the safety requirements.
Wanda Maloney, of the Wyoming Department of Education, and Stephanie Pyle, of the Wyoming Department of Health, led the Smart Start working group, which created these guidelines.