The first day of the 2020 school year was unlike any other Sheridan County School District #1 Superintendent Pete Kilbride had experienced.
It wasn’t just the face masks, hand sanitizer stations and new social distancing rules. It also felt like a long-awaited family reunion, he said.
“It wasn’t like coming out of summer vacation,” he said. “We hadn’t seen these kids for six months. So it was a pretty emotional deal to be able to see them after so long. Both for the staff members and for the kids.”
Students, teachers, and parents around the world were caught off guard when COVID-19 upended education this spring. By July, it was obvious the pandemic wouldn’t end before states would have to face the dilemma of whether to reopen schools in the fall.
Soon each district was formulating its own reopening plan, crafting ways to provide adequate and equitable education for every student — all while heeding new safety realities and complying with the state’s new guidelines.
Most opted for in-person learning with new accommodations. A handful, such as the schools on the Wind River Indian Reservation, went to an all-virtual platform.
No matter their specific plan, all report tough decisions and perpetual adaptation.
‘If that’s what it takes’
In Sheridan County, a survey conducted by Sheridan County School District #1 found that around 10% of families were unsure whether they would send their kids back to in-person classes if they resumed in the fall, while 90% said they would. On Aug. 24, when school resumed mostly in-person, Kilbride reported that the district had close to 96% of its kids back in the classroom.
The district has run a virtual option for years, the Cowboy State Virtual Academy. Previously, it was only an option for out-of-district students, but in order to accommodate families who were uncomfortable sending their students back to in-person classes, the district made it available to all students this year.
According to Kilbride, the academy has “absolutely just exploded, to be honest. We’re one of three in the state that does an online virtual program for any Wyoming student, K-12. We’re small, and we’re purposeful about being small. Our goal was never to get hundreds and hundreds of kids. It was to only grow as much as we can to service the kids really well. So we’ve capped the program at 200.”
Enrollment also increased in the other two virtual K-12 options offered through Wyoming school districts: Wyoming Connections Academy and Wyoming Virtual Academy.
WyVA, based in Niobrara County, reported having to hire new teachers in order to meet the demand. The academy also ran into technical issues early on during the school year.
“One of [our] strengths is the technology side of things, but with thousands of new students suddenly coming on in August, we have had some system issues — they are building out the fixes and supports needed to smooth things out for September and beyond,” Dr. Joseph Heywood, head of school for WyVA, wrote in an email to parents.
As the first day of school approached, there were many questions both about virtual schooling and in-person education, Kilbride said. He himself had much trepidation as the day neared.
“Are kids going to wear the masks or not? Are they going to fight it? Are our parents going to dig their heels in?” he said, recounting questions he had. When August 24th came and went, Kilbride was pleasantly surprised, he said. “When we ask them to put their masks on, they do it. We haven’t had the resistance.”
Even the parents who do not believe the virus is a significant threat have cooperated, Kilbride said, which he is grateful for.
“I talked to a couple parents at a ball game the other day. And one who’s a friend of mine said, ‘I don’t believe in the masks to be honest with you, but if that’s what it takes for my kid to be able to play and go to school, I’m wearing it.’ And I appreciate that.”
Ian Wallace, a library media tech at Meadowlark Elementary of Sheridan County School District #2 acknowledged that the new requirements bring challenges, but there are also positives, he said.
“Recess with a cohort is much more manageable,” he said, as opposed to the old approach that saw all students on the playground at once.
Josh Hanson, a language arts teacher at the John C. Schiffer Collaborative School in Sheridan, said that while the kids don’t always seem happy about it, they are wearing their masks, distancing and adjusting to changes around lunch set ups. “They may complain a little bit but they’re happy to be here,” Hanson said. “It’s going much better than I anticipated.”
Having experienced remote learning in the spring, he and his students prefer being back in the classroom, even with the new protocols. “It’s not like a daily fight or anything. And I was afraid it would be. That’s the thing: In many ways they’re better than the adults in our community.”
Hanson and his fellow teachers have been doing their best in what is a grand experiment, he said.
“We’ve been approaching the school year from the point of view of, ‘Let’s just see how long we can make this fly. Let’s see how long we can get everybody to do what they need to do,’” he said. “So far, so good.”
One of the big challenges has been lack of access to information, he said.
“People think teachers know a lot more of what’s going on,” he said. “I hear most of what’s happening through the grapevine just like everybody else.”
Sometimes kids are absent from class and he isn’t given information about why they are missing, for example. “I have no idea what’s going on or why a certain kid is absent at any given time. It can be concerning because you’re basically throwing yourself into the petri dish every day.”
A teacher who feared repercussion and asked not to be named also mentioned a lack of information. “If you are writing about school,” the individual said, “You should mention that teachers are exhausted, overwhelmed and completely in the dark.”
‘It felt impossible’
Cindy Wright, an electrical engineer living in Casper, began working from home in the spring to help her 13 year old son Orion with his online classes.
“It was interesting to try to do my job and be a single mom and take care of him and help him through a terrifying history project,” she said. “It was just exhausting, is what it was.”
They worked through it though, and ultimately enjoyed the time home together.
Orion attends CY Middle School, which is offering virtual school based on a program they’ve had for years. Cindy didn’t feel that option was advertised well by the school district. “It would have been nice to know about it,” she said. “I would have thought about it for a minute or two.”
She decided she would rather have Orion go to school to meet people. She and Orion are also excited for him to participate in CY’s Lego Robotics club.
“I wouldn’t want Orion to be homeschooled by himself,” she said. “It’s lonely with no parent around. I think a lot of kids went through a lonely self-taught homeschool in the spring.”
On the eve of the first week of classes Wright said, “I feel okay right now. I really feel like I need to keep an eye on infection rates that we hear about, and community spread.” But, she said, “We had a long conversation about what Orion wanted to do and he really wants to go back to his school.”
Wright knew fairly early on that she would send Orion back to in-person classes. Two weeks before school started, Cami Slack was still wrestling with whether to send her three children back to in-person classes or enroll them in a virtual academy.
“It felt impossible,” Slack said.
In particular, Slack was concerned about her daughter, Freya, age 9. Two years ago she developed a cardiac condition as a side effect of a chemotherapy treatment for leukemia.
“Hearing everything that COVID does, it makes you think. She’s just one of those kids. I don’t want her to get it and I don’t want her to have to be in the hospital at all. This sounds like a nasty, horrible virus,” Slack said.
Despite exposure risks, Slack did not feel she had much choice when it came to schooling. “I don’t have a job and I’m a single mom,” she said.
Slack lost her job as a receptionist when the pandemic started, she said. She has been cleaning houses, but only part-time.
Currently, Slack is trying to find work that won’t add to Freya’s exposure risk.
“It all comes back to Freya, so I don’t want to be dealing with the public,” Slack said.
For Slack and her kids, working hard to avoid potential exposure is not new. When Freya was going through treatment, her immune system was compromised and Slack remembers having to follow safety protocols.
“When Freya had leukemia. I used to wear masks out in public in Denver all the time. It’s just common sense. It’s not 100% effective, but it really, really helps,” she said.
Slack ultimately enrolled her kids at Sagebrush Elementary in Sheridan, where she formed a strong relationship with the school nurse. Now that school has started, she’s still concerned, but safety protocols implemented in school buildings help her to feel less anxious.
Both of her sons, Oswin, 6, and Alaric, 12, are doing really well at school and want to be there, she said.
Still, Slack doesn’t feel it is right that parents like her have to choose between protecting their children and being able to pay the bills.
“It’s tempting to take them out of school because the cases have been climbing in Sheridan County. But I’m trying to figure out how to have a career here,” she said a few weeks after school began.
Slack isn’t as worried about the disruption of education. She has a few insights from the year of school Freya missed during her cancer treatment.
Following that year, “ … she went back to school in second grade and she did great. Almost like nothing ever happened. Kids are so smart and they’re so resilient. And the teachers are awesome, because they really do know what they’re doing. If any kid misses a couple months or even a year, I don’t think it’s really going to be a problem for their educational life,” Slack said.
Sarah Kindle, co-owner of Coffeen Liquors in Sheridan, known by locals as the Cozy Corner, has family health concerns. Decisions about whether to send her children, Alivia, 9, and Anthony, 13, back to school this year weighed on her.
“Because my mother has had pneumonia so many times, if they were to go to school and be exposed to it, and then she was exposed to it … it would not be good,” Kindle said.
She chose a virtual option: the Wyoming Connections Academy based out of Cody. Along with considerations of her mother’s health, Kindle worried that in-person school might be disrupted if community spread started occurring in schools. She didn’t want her kids to go back to school, get used to being there, and then have everything shut down like it did in the spring, she said.
Recently, a customer of the Cozy died of COVID-19-related complications, she said, heightening her concern.
“That was kind of real,” she said, “I don’t want my mom to get it. I don’t want my kids to get it. I don’t want to get it, and I don’t want my customers to get it.”
“It’s hard with a 9-year-old and a 13-year-old,” Kindle said. “They want to get out. And now with school, it’s harder for them. I won’t keep them isolated, but I will keep them as safe as I can.”
As a working, single mother, she thought Connections Academy would offer her family enough flexibility to be able to keep up with school, she said.
They got off to a rocky start. It took weeks for materials to arrive, she said, and recently the kids computers have been plagued with technical issues.
Kindle juggles customers and talks to her kids on the phone while she is at work. She spends a lot of time just trying to keep them on track, she said.
“There are some days when I’m like, ‘Oh my God, why didn’t I send them back to school?’” she said. “But in the scheme of things I want to keep them safe. Now, do I still let them ride their bikes to Walmart and all that? Yes. Do I make them wear their masks? Yes.”
Since school started, at least 50 COVID-19 infections have been reported among staff, faculty, and student populations in Wyoming, according to a database maintained by the National Education Association. The NEA’s tally relies on self reported submissions. “Unfortunately, due to a lack of testing and funding,” the website reads, “we expect the number of cases is higher than reported on this site.”
On Sept. 16, Superintendent Kilbride reported six cases among staff. Kilbride made the announcement from his home where he was quarantining. A total of 35 people in the district quarantined after that announcement.
Similar stories played out across the state, though as of mid-October, no schools reported closing due to infections.
Ten Sheridan students have tested positive for the coronavirus over the past month, prompting officials to quarantine a “large number” of the patients’ peers because of potential exposure. In a statement, Sheridan County School District #2 superintendent Craig Dougherty said that the “real success story” is that no cases have spread within schools.
On Oct. 2, the Wyoming Department of Health announced changes to quarantine procedures within schools. “Specifically, we no longer recommend quarantine if a potential exposure occurs while both the infectious individual and the close contacts are wearing face coverings,” State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist said.
In response to the new guidance, Dougherty has decided to have all students wear masks all day.
“Having all students wear face coverings at school will virtually eliminate school-originated quarantines,” Dougherty said. “Along with keeping students and staff safe, our objective is to avoid quarantines, which have adverse effects on learning, along with the bottom line for working families.”