Evanston school district begins distance learning

Uinta Meadows Elementary student Bella McGuire chats with her teacher and classmates during a practice run of a video conference for when school starts on Monday. (HERALD PHOTO/Sheila McGuire)

EVANSTON — It’s back to school for Uinta County School District No. 1 students and staff on Monday, April 13, though classrooms will look decidedly different than when school was last in session on Thursday, March 12. The UCSD No. 1 Board of Trustees approved the district’s adaptive learning plan during a video conference meeting on Tuesday, March 31, and the Wyoming Department of Education (WDE) approved the plan on April 2. That means starting on April 13, student attendance is again compulsory and required.

However, given the extended closure of public spaces ordered by Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon, students will not actually be going to school until at least May and will instead be primarily attending school virtually through a variety of different online applications or through learning packets sent home to those without the ability to participate online.

Superintendent Ryan Thomas said surveys had been sent via email to all families in the district regarding internet access and availability of computers in student homes. Thomas said approximately 73% of families had responded, with 4% of those responding they did not have access to technology in the home. Thomas said the assumption is the other 27% that did not respond have not done so because of a lack of technology requirements, and, when combined with the 4% who responded stating they lacked access, that equates to approximately 30% of families without access, which is approximately the percentage district administration believed would lack access.

Thomas said All West Communications has offered to provide free internet access to those in need and students in grades 2-12 have district-issued Chromebooks that can be checked out and taken home if students do not already have them at home. Students in grades K-1 do have the option of checking a Chromebook out from the district. However, Thomas said some parents who do not have internet access have indicated they do not want it.

For those without internet access, learning packets will be used for student learning. Packets would need to be picked up from and returned to the respective schools at designated times. Thomas emphasized any learning packets will need to be created and delivered using social distancing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), including leaving materials in a state of isolation prior to distribution and after pickup.

For those who will be attending class virtually online, the district will be utilizing Zoom web conferencing, Canvas and Google Classroom programs. Live video sessions will be held every morning for all students, for approximately three hours; however, sessions will be recorded for anyone unable to attend the live morning sessions. In addition to the video sessions, students will have other work to complete utilizing other platforms and independent, non-computer-based work.

Thomas said attendance will be based more on student engagement than physical presence during the video sessions; however, the WDE has mandated that the adaptive educational plan must be “robust” and continue to provide a high level of student learning.

The first few days of the new system will be similar to the first week of school in many ways, said Thomas, and he asked for everyone to be patient as both students and staff learn to navigate the new learning programs. He asked that parents not overload teachers with emails on the first day and said teachers will have established virtual office hours during which they’re expected to respond to email communication within one hour. Otherwise, teachers are expected to respond within 24 hours.

The adaptive learning plan includes methods to provide both interventions for students struggling with the material, as well as enrichments for those who have mastered material, as well as instructional plans for special education students. Virtual parent-teacher conferences will also be scheduled.

Thomas said there have been many questions related to high school students and grade point averages. He said for purposes of graduation, the GPA for seniors has been frozen at what it was on March 16; however, students do have an opportunity to complete work to bring the GPA up. Senior projects are also still required; however, that process may be modified dependent on circumstances.

For other secondary students in grades 6-11, grading will not change significantly, and students will be expected to complete work that was previously assigned. For elementary students grading will be done in a pass/fail format.

Thomas and board chair Jami Brackin both emphasized the need for patience as everyone adapts to the new learning environment. Thomas said the adaptive learning plan “will be the best we can provide, but it’s not going to be the same as face-to-face instruction. The reality is this has impacted every student in the entire country. It’s possible we may never get some of the lost time back.”

Brackin too asked for patience and emphasized the district’s commitment to “flattening the curve” of COVID-19 infection. “The reality is that in Wyoming we are about three to four weeks behind the rest of the country,” she said, pointing out it may be quite some time before students are able to physically return to school. “We want people to be prepared for that.”

“We want to get our kids back as soon as we can get them back safely,” said Thomas, while saying he certainly hopes that is before the end of this school year.

In other business, the board approved staff contracts for the 2020-2021 school year, along with resignations of four staff members. The board also approved a resolution granting emergency powers to Thomas to allow him to make changes as needed due to new government orders regarding school closures and more; Thomas will need to keep the board apprised of any changes.

Thomas shared his appreciation with all district staff for tackling all the changes that have been thrown at them due to the mandatory school closures, and he and Brackin also applauded district food service employees who are continuing to provide meals to students throughout the district, serving approximately 2,100 meals on Monday, March 30, an estimated daily average.

Several trustees also shared their appreciation of staff at local elementary schools that have participated in “parades” throughout their attendance areas to see and wave to students, noting how important that contact was for students.

Those interested in viewing the district’s new adaptive learning plans can find them on the district website at uinta1.com.

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