A family waves to teachers and staff members of Lakeview Elementary School in Gillette as they drive by in a teacher parade March 24. The three-hour parade around the neighborhoods near the grade school was designed to put a smile on the children’s faces during this time of coronavirus isolation. (August Frank/Gillette News Record/Wyoming News Exchange)

School closures prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic are putting teachers, administrators, parents and students to the test statewide.

Districts are adapting and innovating on the fly to meet the distance-learning needs of their particular communities until at least April 17 — and likely much longer. A common thread runs through the decentralized response: Student and family wellbeing is paramount.

“Our priorities are health and safety, which included food service for us,” said Ray Kramer, superintendent in Goshen County’s district, which has 1,661 students. “Trying to focus [on] the parents’ mental health is no. 1,” he said.

Teachers and administrators are telling parents not  to try and replicate a seven-hour school day, and reminding them they’re not expected to perform at the same level as professional educators. “Ease into this situation,” is Kramer’s advice. 

A Torrington kindergarten teacher is passing on that message in his district. “We’re all being asked to change how we educate,” Sage Fields told WyoFile. She’s advising parents that “they’re not teachers, they’re parents first,” she said.

Schools must create and the state must approve their adapted learning plans for remote instruction by April 6, according to Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow’s guidance. The plans will be valid through the end of the school year.

Schools will not be required to administer ACT tests to 11th graders this spring, but online and later options may be available. Statewide WY-TOPP and WY-ALT testing has been suspended for the spring. Districts won’t have to make up school days missed during the initial shutdown between March 16-April 3, and won’t lose funding based on days missed during that time.

Meals roll out

Many districts have continued student-meal programs, ensuring students are well fed, several educators said. “We believe so much that this nutrition is so vital for not just learning but for their development,” Park County School District 1 Superintendent Jay Curtis in Powell said last week.

Meals are passed out outdoors from the back of district vehicles, a lunch and breakfast in each bag. Parents drive up and say how many children they have younger than 18, he said.

Fremont County School District #1 teacher Julie Calhoun and paraprofessional Stephanie Harris hand out bagged free lunches in front of Gannett Peak Elementary School in Lander on Thursday. The district has been preparing 600 meals a day for kids under the age of 18 during the COVID-19 closure. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

“If they tell us they have five, we give them five meals,” he said. “Yesterday, we served over 1,000 meals” across a school system that educates 1,830 students.

Goshen County gives out food at 11 different locations, Superintendent Kramer said. Food service director Patty Essert scrambled to get between 250-300 bags of food ready for the first day of the closure, he said.

In Hot Springs County, the district first made weekend meals available to students who qualified for free-and-reduced-price lunches, superintendent Dustin Hunt said. Then he expanded the program for all 650 students. “It’s open to anybody who’s in K-12 since we’re in the situation we’re in,” he said.

Johnson County schools, which educates 1,300 students, will add breakfast in its lunch bags starting Wednesday, superintendent Jim Wagner said. 

Digital connectivity

Computer-based instruction was already in wide use around the state before the closures — albeit mostly in the classroom — giving most educators and students a foundation on which to build the new paradigm. 

Many students — even those in elementary schools — already have iPads, Chromebooks or laptops, several superintendents said. There’s a push to outfit those who don’t and to ensure all can connect to instructors or lessons over the internet.

Kristine and Grainger Harris work on a puzzle at their home in Jackson, combining a fun activity with a lesson in geography. Other families, including the Bradofs and MacGregors, completed the puzzle and sanitized it before passing it on through the neighborhood. (Adam Harris/Pine Drive Neighbors)

In Johnson County about 90% of students have devices, Wagner said, and his staff is working to get the remaining 10% hooked up. Some who can’t connect may have homework delivered to them or may pick up lessons at schools.

“We started doing this last year with math and reading so it’s not much of a stretch of us,” he said. “Up to this point, it’s been used as a resource to enhance our lessons.”

Now, it is the way students will do most of the learning. “The hardest part is making sure people don’t get worked up or have too much anxiety [and] help[ing] each other who are not tech savvy,” he said.

In Hot Springs County, students from grade 5 and up already have personal devices, Hunt said, and there are enough extras to outfit lower grades, too. “A lot of our work is done and turned in via Google Classroom anyway,” he said. “The main concern is to continue to monitor connectivity,” and where homes don’t have internet service, teachers will distribute a learning packet.

Goshen County connecting students from sixth grade on up is a priority, but the district has enough devices to connect students down to third grade, Kramer said. Teachers will decide their own comfort levels getting students below that grade level online, he said. 

Connecting with parents through social media “is a profound opportunity,” he said. The same goes for teaching. 

“Now that we’ve seen this way of instruction … how is that going to impact instruction moving forward?,” he asked. “It’s a great opportunity for classes to look dramatically different in the way we deliver instruction.”

A challenge remains with special needs students, especially those requiring physical or occupational therapy that requires physical contact, because guidelines urge people to stay apart during the coronavirus pandemic. Providing those therapy needs “is going to be more difficult,” said Hot Springs’ Hunt. 

“We’re going to utilize our best efforts with technology,” he said. “That includes counseling via telephone or via (video) conferencing. It just doesn’t look exactly the same,” as what would happen in person.

Addressing special needs, “it’s a challenge for some but a challenge we feel we can meet,” said Park County’s Curtis. Johnson County’s Wagner said his district is working on how teletherapy, virtual engagement between student-client and therapist, can be used to meet the special needs.

Virtual PE?

For those feeling overwhelmed or cooped up, Wilson elementary PE teacher Kim Hunt posts “Mrs. Hunt’s Action Update” each day on her Facebook page for her 250 or so students and their parents. “I do want to get the word out [that] there are multiple places to go for kids’ activities,” she said. “Parents don’t have to create plans every day.”

She’s always looking for new ideas, Hunt said, but when the shutdown happened, she reached further.

Scenes like this one from Natalie Lyon’s third grade class at John Colter Elementary school in Jackson in 2017 may not be seen for the rest of the 2020 school year if the coronavirus shutdown continues. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

“When this all happened, we were asked to come up with a home-support plan,” she said. “It happened pretty fast.”

One of the best resources she found was a PE teacher in Italy. “He sent out a plea for help ‘I’m teaching PE from my house — does anybody have any ideas?’” she said.

She sent him one, and combed other submissions. “I watched a man from China doing a full-on workout from his garage,” she said. “Looking through that really sparked me to get going.”

Hunt’s Facebook friends can play Fitness Monopoly — land on Boardwalk and they must do seven squat jumps. Parents and elementary students can create an outdoor maze or obstacle course out of sticks and twigs. Or (get ready) do the Baby Shark dance.

Children need 60 minutes of activity every day, she said. Many ideas are available at GoNoodle, PE Central and Active kids.

There’s a silver lining in the shutdown. “It has given me ideas of what I can do when I get back to school,” Hunt said.

Missing the pitter-patter

Teachers and administrators have had to make their own emotional adjustments, they said. “It’s an eerie feeling when you don’t have students there,” Wagner said of walking through an empty school building.

For teacher Fields, the absence of kindergartners “makes you appreciate the bonds you create, the relationships you build.” She wrote each of her students and included an envelope and stamp for a return note.

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One mother called and put her daughter on the phone. “She read a book to me,” Fields said.

In Lander, a fourth grade teacher at Baldwin Creek Elementary School was able to connect with most of her students quickly after the surprise shutdown. But one proved difficult to contact. She acted.

“I immediately went to Baldwin Creek and picked up a computer for him,” Debbie Barry wrote WyoFile. “I dropped it off at his apartment, as he opened the door, his smile reached from ear to ear with pure exhilaration!”

Some students are yearning for their familiar structure, Superintendent Hunt in Thermopolis said. “Nothing is a substitute for our staff in our classroom.”

He said one student asked him, “When do we get to come back to school, Mr. Hunt? It’s just better with our teachers.”

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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