Evanston schools to continue distance learning for remainder of school year

A screengrab from the May 5 Evanston school board meeting touches on updates to celebrations as local school officials, shown at right, participate via videoconference.

EVANSTON — Evanston students will not be returning to the classroom for the duration of the 2019-2020 school year. The Uinta County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees discussed the possibility of seeking a return to in-person schooling for the final couple of weeks of the school year during the regular monthly meeting on Tuesday, May 5; however, the consensus was that returning to buildings would be more disruptive than continuing the adaptive learning plan that has been in place since mid-April.

While Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon has not yet lifted orders on K-12 school closures, he did indicate individual school districts could seek exceptions to those orders provided they developed a safety plan for reopening. Local school board members discussed that possibility but ultimately most felt the measures that would need to be in place were simply too drastic and the risks too great to warrant their use.

Trustee Dave Bennett was the only board member who said he definitely wanted to reopen schools and have students return to the classroom, citing a need for some normalcy and the possibility for high school students to have a traditional graduation and junior prom. However, board chair Jami Brackin pointed out that even if students did return, the social distancing measures that would need to be in place would still prevent those large events from occurring as they have in the past.

Brackin said a return would require developing plans to ensure less than 20 people, including staff and students, in each classroom, with distancing measures to keep people physically separated. Additionally, people would likely have to be masked and 6-12 students would need to stay in one classroom all day rather than moving between classrooms as normal.

Brackin said she feels the transition to adaptive distance learning has already been difficult for both students and staff and it isn’t desirable to ask them to transition to something else in such a short period of time.

“If we’re not going back to normal, why put kids through that?” she asked.

Most other trustees agreed. Jenny Welling said the nine school days that could possibly be in the classroom with strict requirements in place simply wouldn’t be “worth changing everything up again.”

Caleb Guild said, “Nine days just isn’t worth it, especially if we wouldn’t actually be going back to normal.”

Superintendent Ryan Thomas said district administration is working on an in-person summer school program for those students who would benefit from face-to-face instructional time, although it may start at a later date than usual. Additionally, Evanston High School is working on a plan to offer exceptions for students in classes, such as vocational courses, where projects can’t possibly be done at home.

Brackin also emphasized that, although the plan and the hope is for a return to normal for next school year, the situation with COVID-19 is fluid and changing and it’s difficult to predict what’s going to unfold in the next few months. “The expectation is we’ll go back to normal in August,” said Brackin, “but the reality is we may not.”

During a K-12 curriculum presentation, assistant superintendents Joe Ingalls and Doug Rigby praised the hard work of all staff adapting to the distance learning situation. Ingalls said the district “is at or above the curve” compared to other districts around the country in terms of distance learning, while Rigby said, “Staff are really going above and beyond.”

While the adaptive learning plan was part of the curriculum presentation, Ingalls and Rigby also discussed ongoing curriculum development, including the addition of more pre-AP courses at EHS, a greater focus on elective course curriculum and the availability of curriculum details and resources for parents on the district website.

District chief financial officer John Williams spoke to the board about the budget for the upcoming school year, noting that he feels good about the situation for next year and again saying the budget will be very similar to this year. However, Williams said the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in “seismic” changes since the last legislative session and he expects economic fallout for the district for future school years.

Principal Merle Lester provided the board with an update on plans for EHS graduation, stating the ceremony will still occur at the football stadium. Each student will be in a vehicle with his or her family, with only one vehicle allowed per student. Lester said he understands there are split-home situations and feels for those individuals; however, they are attempting to do the best they can under the circumstances.

The ceremony will be shown on the EHS scoreboard screen and televised on local streaming services, including speeches and presentations. Toni J Studios will be on hand to take professional photos of each student since family members will be unable to exit their vehicles for photos. Lester said they are also working with local law enforcement to arrange for some type of parade through town following the ceremony.

In other business, trustees again discussed reducing the size of the board from nine to seven members. School district attorney Geoff Phillips told board members he had met with the Uinta County Commissioners earlier in the day to discuss the formation of a boundary board, which would be necessary for any sort of restructuring of the school board. At that commission meeting, county officials and Phillips discussed the impracticalities of reducing the board during the upcoming 2020 election cycle, including the short time frame to make any changes prior to the election and the fact that eliminating two board positions this year would mean only two seats would be up for election this November while five would be open in 2022.

Phillips indicated to county commissioners the trustees were aware of the difficulties in making the change this year and were looking ahead to 2022. During the school board meeting, trustees voted to go ahead and proceed with convening a boundary board to look into the restructuring, with Kay Fackrell and Cassie Torres voting against the proposal and trustees Christa Barker, Brackin, Guild, Welling and Bennett in favor. David Peterson and Russell Cox were not present to vote on the matter.

Trustees also voted to approve a request for proposals from companies interested in conducting a study on the feasibility of constructing a fieldhouse for school district use, which would require taking a bonding measure before voters at some time in the future. An RFP will be issued to pursue the study only.

The board will convene again at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, May 19, when a public hearing will be held regarding the board’s intent to amend Rule CKA, the district’s concealed carry rule, to include instructor qualifications. The hearing will take place via Zoom video conferencing, with a link to that meeting accessible on the district’s Facebook page.

It was the district’s failure to include such qualifications that resulted in a legal ruling declaring CKA invalid, following a lawsuit filed last fall by Evanston residents Tim and Katie Beppler, Nathan Prete and Tiffany Eskelson-Maestas. That lawsuit asked for CKA to be ruled invalid on four counts, including the failure to establish instructor qualifications, but three of the four counts were dismissed by First District Court Judge Steven Sharpe.

However, the plaintiffs in the case have filed a notice of appeal of the rulings dismissing those three counts. That notice of appeal, filed on Wednesday, May 6, means the case will likely end up before the Wyoming Supreme Court.

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