ETHETE — On a typical Friday afternoon in late September, the halls of Wyoming Indian High School in Ethete would echo with the sounds of lockers slamming, students hustling to class and young voices talking.
But on this Friday in 2020, the building is ghostly quiet. The halls are deserted, the large lobby sits in silence and the only voices emanating through the building are those of teachers, alone in classrooms, talking to their computer screens.
“I’m used to the kids bouncing around and running and doing stuff in the lunchroom, being noisy,” Wyoming Indian Instructional Facilitator Sarah Stoll said from an empty classroom on the building’s second floor. Now, she said, those sounds are oddly absent.
“It’s very quiet,” Fremont County School District #14 interim Superintendent Michelle Hoffman said. Normally, fall sports would be in full swing, and Homecoming events would be dominating activities. None of that is happening. “It’s just a weird feeling,” Hoffman said.
As schools across Wyoming opened their doors to in-person learning this fall under new pandemic guidelines, educational facilities on the Wind River Indian Reservation — Wyoming Indian, Fort Washakie, Arapaho and St. Stephens schools — opted for virtual-only education.
It’s an enormous challenge, especially on the vast and sparsely populated reservation, where connectivity is already an issue. But the pandemic has hit the reservation community particularly hard, and leaders decided extra precautions were still in order this fall.
“We thought it was important, and our boards thought it was important, that kids not be in school right now,” Hoffman said of the districts’ decisions, which were shaped by tribal health orders and parents’ input. “It’s tough, but what I keep telling people is, ‘this is a pandemic, we need to do the best we can to get through it.’”
Recognizing that intergenerational housing arrangements and underlying health conditions made their population particularly vulnerable, Wind River Indian Reservation leaders acted early and aggressively to beat back COVID-19. Schools and businesses closed, tribal authorities enacted a stay-at-home order — the only such order in Wyoming — and health facilities offered widespread testing.
Even with those safeguards, the virus brought devastation to the reservation. Of Fremont County’s 14 COVID-19-related deaths — the most of any county in the state — all have been connected to the reservation community, residents say, and particularly the Northern Arapaho tribe. Beloved elders have passed away and some families have lost multiple members, from multiple generations, to the virus.
When it came time for Wyoming Indian schools to plan for the fall semester, the decision to go to a virtual-only educational model was straightforward, Hoffman said.
“It was very easy for my board to make that decision,” Hoffman said.
The tribal stay-at-home order was still in place, for one thing. Though the Wind River Inter-Tribal Council — which represents both the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes — amended the order in August to allow casinos to reopen under new regulations, the mandate still applied to schools.
Another factor, she said, was parent feedback.
“I had several parents Facebook message me who said, ‘I don’t want to send my kids back until this is over,’” she said.
The district, she said, also contemplated, and continues to think about, historical trauma.
“White mans’ diseases took out native populations because they had no immunity to it … So this pandemic is just kind of another reminder that there are still things out there that can still wipe out a community,” Hoffman said.
When the district asked parents during online registration what their preference was if the schools were to open back up — which they may, if stay-at-home orders lift — 367 of 592 responded they would rather keep their kids home, Hoffman said. Only 217 said they would send their kids back.
Emery’l Le Beau is one of the parents who supports virtual schooling. She’s also a school board member. For Le Beau, a Northern Arapaho tribal member who has a fourth grader, an eighth grader and a son in college — as well as a 78-year-old father who lives with her family — the issue that supersedes all else is safety.
“First and foremost in my mind and the rest of the board members’ minds was to keep the community safe,” Le Beau said. “We do have preexisting conditions here. Having our kids possibly carry this virus into a home that contains a multigenerational family was a big concern. We did not want that to happen.”
A majority of Wyoming Indian students are Northern Arapaho, the tribe particularly devastated in the pandemic, Le Beau said. Hoffman also pointed out that intergenerational households are very common.
“A good majority of our kids live in a household that contains a grandparent, or they are being raised by their grandparent,” she said.
What wasn’t so straightforward was the massive logistical endeavor required to turn Wyoming Indian’s elementary, middle and high schools into virtual learning centers.
First was the task of equipping kids. The district polled its 642 students to find out how many had computers and internet access. It ordered and delivered a Chromebook to the hands of each student. Staff traveled to homes across a huge geographic area to install some 280 hotspots, figure out connectivity and help with technology, Hoffman said.
Knowing parents would be on the hook as de facto classroom monitors in their homes, the district then set up trainings for them. Some 218 parents and caregivers learned a host of online platforms, taking a crash course in online instruction.
And in perhaps the biggest challenge, the district had to re-train its teachers for an entirely new form of instruction, Hoffman said.
“Teachers were never taught to teach this way,” Hoffman said. “You don’t get into education to sit in front of a computer, it’s to be with kids.”
Wyoming Indian teachers suddenly had to learn how to navigate Zoom, as well as online learning platforms like Canvas and Infinite Campus. The school pushed its start date back in order to give teachers time to familiarize themselves. It was a steep learning curve, Hoffman said.
“I know we’ve had a lot of frustration. But we’ve had a lot of growth, too,” she said.
Three weeks in, Wyoming Indian virtual schooling has hit a stride of sorts.
Teachers come in each day to instruct via computers, giving lectures and doing the difficult job of holding accountable students who aren’t physically present. Kids are generally getting the hang of log-ins, teachers say, and relying on the district’s new media specialist for all manner of technology questions. Buses depart daily to deliver hundreds of packaged meals to recipients in a sprawling area that ranges from Riverton to Beaver Creek. Staff keep tabs on attendance, and teachers and others call or conduct in-person visits if kids go dark for a couple days.
Challenges still abound, which can be expected when a system is so suddenly overhauled.
Carrie Jo Calvert was reminded of this when she tried to give her math students a quiz earlier in the day. Today’s technology enables students to Google answers on their phones, she said, or do things like click out of a meeting when the teacher says there’s going to be a test.
The experience underlined the difficulties of not being in the same place physically, she said.
“I’m a very visual person and I want to walk by you and say ‘how did you do that’ or I want to watch you do that … and now I feel like I spend my days going, ‘are you there?’” Calvert said. Before, she would see students in the cafeteria or halls and ask about missing assignments. Now, she said, she can only send emails and hope they get answered.
Stoll, the instructional facilitator, said many teachers have struggled to connect with their students.
“You can try to make a connection with a kid [online], but it’s not the same,” Stoll said. “And staff has said that: ‘I can’t make those face-to-face, personal connections with my kids.’ That is a huge challenge.”
Students miss being in school as well, Hoffman said. As reopening schools became a national debate this year, many pointed to to detrimental effects of prolonged absence from school — particularly on marginalized students. But with the specific circumstances facing the reservation, Hoffman thinks Wyoming Indian students get it.
“I know they would love to be here, but also a good majority of them understand that it’s not safe for the elderly in their homes,” she said.
Le Beau’s fourth- and eighth-grader have settled into a routine, she said. The family used to load the kids on the bus to school in the mornings, she said, but now they sit and eat breakfast together.
She and the kids’ dad make sure they are logged in before going to work, she said, and both come home for lunch to check on the kids. Her oldest son, who is attending Central Wyoming College — also virtually — is around to monitor them in the meantime.
Virtual school definitely forced the family to shift its routines, she said. But “with this pandemic, it meant that my family was first and foremost going to be safe.”
Her children like the flexibility of their new schedule and have adapted pretty well, she said.
“Of course they would love to be back in school to see their friends and teachers and be in that environment, but they understand that they are home to keep their family, and most of all their community, safe,” Le Beau said.