EVANSTON — The Uinta County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees continued to discuss school reopening plans during the regular meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 4. The district submitted its reopening plan to the Wyoming Department of Education for approval by the Aug. 3 deadline and had not yet received that approval before Tuesday’s meeting.
When the district first released its plan to the public in late July, administrators also released a survey to assess parents’ attitudes and preferences about reopening school during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Superintendent Ryan Thomas, approximately 1,000 responses were received, with 42.7% of those responding having multiple children in the local school system of roughly 2,700 students. Of those 1,000 responses, Thomas said approximately 57% preferred a return to face-to-face in-person instruction when school begins again on Aug. 24, while about 24% said they preferred a hybrid of in-person and distance instruction.
About 11% said they preferred entirely distance instruction and another 8% were unsure.
When asked about the likelihood of sending their children back to school for in-person instruction, the vast majority of respondents said they were very likely or likely to do so, while about 15% said they were unlikely or very unlikely to send their kids back into the traditional classroom. Thomas said the survey results were encouraging.
For those who do not wish to return to the district’s planned Tier I in-person instruction, the other two options are to participate in the virtual education program the district is putting together or to pursue homeschooling options, which could also include programs like statewide virtual academies. Thomas emphasized, however, that the district’s virtual program will not be the same as in-person instruction, nor will it be the same type of situation as last spring when schools were entirely closed and the district transitioned to an adaptive learning program.
The district’s virtual program will not take place at the same time as the regular school day, with virtual instruction scheduled to take place from 4-7 p.m. Monday through Friday. With the three-hour time frame, Assistant Superintendent Doug Rigby said students in grades 6-8, for example, will receive the same classroom instruction as those in school buildings for core classes, such as English, math, science and social studies, but will then be expected to complete work and projects outside of that time frame and will be expected to complete the same amount of work as their peers.
The virtual program will also likely not include other offerings, like electives or “specials” classes of music, gym and more. Thomas said it’s possible that high school students who elect the virtual option may fall behind in terms of graduation requirements because required classes like gym and health, for example, are unable to be offered in a virtual format.
While the district plan provided what Thomas referred to as the “10,000-foot view” of what schools will look like and what safety precautions will be in place due to the pandemic, the principals of each individual school are working with building staff to determine specific plans for each building, including using specific entries and exits depending on grade level, cafeteria plans and more. Those plans and additional parent surveys seeking a definite commitment to return to school or not are to be sent out by each individual school by Friday, Aug. 7, said Thomas.
At least one aspect of a return to school will be a mask requirement any time 6 feet of distance cannot be maintained between individuals, including on district transportation, during entry and exit times, in cafeteria lines, in hallways during transition periods and in classrooms if adequate social distancing as required by public health orders cannot be maintained. Thomas said questions about mask requirements were some of the most frequent from parents and his response is that masks are required “for now but not forever.”
Thomas particularly emphasized mask requirements for staff members, pointing out that summer school programs did not have to close even when some individuals involved in the programs tested positive for the coronavirus because everyone was masked. He said staff not wearing masks could have drastic consequences if, for example, a teacher weren’t masked during a grade-level team meeting and subsequently found out he or she was positive for COVID-19. That would necessitate an entire grade-level teaching team be quarantined due to exposure. A failure to wear masks could also result in large groups of students being quarantined as well.
Thomas said the district has been working closely with the local public health office and he is “really impressed” with that working relationship. He said part of that work included questions about whether individuals with respiratory difficulties, such as asthma, were able to safely wear masks and public health had confirmed such individuals could wear masks without difficulties.
Other concerns focused on classes, such as music classes, where students would typically be either singing or playing mouth instruments. Thomas said district music teachers had been discussing ways to conduct such classes safely, including perhaps taking classes outside if the weather permits. It was also suggested that auditoriums could be utilized for music classes in the middle schools and high school.
When asked about ventilation in some classrooms, particularly music, drama or gym areas, Thomas said all air filters had been changed over the summer and would probably be changed more than ever during the pandemic. He said the air in schools would be “turned over frequently” with building heating and cooling systems.
Thomas repeatedly emphasized the importance of cooperation by staff, students, parents and the community to hopefully get through the first several weeks and months of school without incident or illness to help build confidence and possibly make people feel more comfortable sending their children back to class.
Pandemic precautions were also part of a discussion about activities, including athletics. Activities Director Bubba O’Neill reported the Wyoming High School Activities Association has given fall sports and activities the go-ahead, although with some restrictions in place. O’Neill said there are limits on how many students can participate in each activity at one time, which could make things like golf or cross-country, for example, challenging because the limits would make it impossible to take everyone on the team to compete in a given meet.
In addition, no multi-day tournaments are allowed and there are limits on the number of spectators as well. Currently, with the public health orders in place, only 250 people would be able to be in the stands or bleachers for any event, although he said they’re hoping to receive permission to have more people in attendance, provided all attendees are masked. O’Neill and trustees discussed whether that limitation will require some sort of ticketing system for people to attend home events, as well as other options to allow fans to still support their home teams.
O’Neill said the local radio station plans to broadcast more events to the public and noted the Pixellot cameras had been installed in the gymnasiums and on the field of Evanston High School and both middle schools to allow for live streaming of games. In addition, O’Neill said many of the 4A activities directors around the state had discussed paying a $3,000 fee per district to allow for live streaming of all games throughout the state so nobody would have to miss watching away matches either.
When trustee David Peterson asked about possibly live streaming concerts or drama productions held in auditoriums, O’Neill said he loves the idea but that is more complicated due to copyright law over the reproduction of music and other live works of art.
Trustee Jenny Welling asked about the possibility of working with either the Strand Theatre and/or Aspen Cinemas to potentially show the live streams at those venues as a way to help the movie theater and Strand Theater bring in some revenue. Neither has been immune to financial difficulties during the pandemic. She suggested that would allow more people to view the games, while also possibly allowing different school clubs to sell or get a portion of the proceeds of concessions, given that many student clubs rely on concession stands for fundraising. O’Neill said that was a great suggestion and was something that could be discussed and developed.