EVANSTON — The calendar has barely turned to July and several weeks of summer remain; however, after having already spent more than three months away from the traditional classroom, parents, teachers and students alike are all wondering whether students will return to those classrooms in the fall. On Wednesday, July 1, the Wyoming Department of Education released its 27-page Smart Start guidance document to help districts throughout the state answer that question in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Perhaps to the dismay of those hoping for a simple yes or no answer to the question of whether schools will be open, the Smart Start guide instead provides for a three-tiered approach to how classes will be conducted, with decisions on which level a district utilizes determined by local conditions at any given time.
Each district is required to submit its detailed plans to the WDE for approval by Aug. 3, including details on how schools will meet the requirements outlined in the Smart Start guide for each tier.
Tier 1 is for open schools with in-person instruction and activities, with “minimal adapted learning on a limited, as-needed basis.” Tier 2 calls for a hybrid of in-person and distance classes “due to local or state health directives” resulting in intermittent closures and/or quarantines. Tier 3 means schools are completely closed to in-person instruction and all classes are being conducted remotely, as was the case for the last several weeks of the most recent school year.
Even if schools are open, however, there will be significant changes. Tiers 1 and 2 both require “social distancing and face coverings to the greatest extent possible.”
The Smart Start plans submitted by districts are required to address the four specific areas of communications, safety and wellness, school operations and instruction and technology. Each area needs to include details on what districts are currently doing to prepare, what will be done immediately prior to opening and what will be done when schools are open and operating. Each area also includes separate practices that are required and others that are recommended.
Under communication, districts are required to develop and utilize detailed communication plans to share with students, parents, staff, the community and state and local boards, as well as create a glossary of terms related to COVID-19 using CDC definitions to establish a consistent vocabulary.
Communication recommendations include utilizing multiple methods of communication to reach diverse audiences, collecting feedback from families and stakeholders, sharing information on any screening procedures that will be utilized, establishing how information on positive cases will be disseminated while also ensuring privacy is protected, engaging parent organizations to help support teachers and families, training staff and providing educational materials to families regarding safety and sanitation practices and more.
Safety and wellness requirements are more extensive and include developing plans for building entrances that may include limiting the number of entrances or designating specific entrances for specific groups, developing plans for transitions in hallways and developing plans for exiting schools at the end of the day — all to avoid having large clusters of people together in one area. The document states plans may include having staggered arrival and departure times or split school days if needed to reduce the number of people in one area at one time.
Safety and wellness requirements also include asking parents to screen students for COVID-19 symptoms every day prior to school and keeping students home if they, or any other members of the household, are symptomatic. Schools will be required to have hand sanitizer available at multiple locations throughout each building and to “adhere to local health department requirements regarding hand washing, masks, water fountains and restrooms.”
School operations guidance includes transportation plans regarding enhanced sanitation and cleaning of buses; maximized social distancing, use of face coverings and appropriate hygiene measures in cafeterias, along with the elimination of self-service options, and cleaning and sanitation protocols that meet or exceed government guidelines; and enhanced cleaning and sanitation of all school facilities. The guide recommends that physical education activities be conducted outside whenever possible.
As for activities, including sports, the guide states, “Each school district will operate student activities in a way that maximizes social distancing, use of face coverings and appropriate hygiene measures. When social distancing is not possible, staff and students should wear face coverings to the greatest extent possible. For athletics, face coverings should be worn by coaches, staff, officials, parents and spectators whenever six feet of separation cannot be maintained. Players should refrain from wearing face coverings during strenuous activity.” The guide also states all athletes must be screened prior to participation in allowable sanctioned sports.
Technology requirements include developing plans for options for students to participate in remote virtual education if the student, or a family member, is in a high-risk category for COVID-19 complications, including providing district-assigned learning coaches for such students, and working with parents who choose to home-school students due to COVID-19 concerns.
The plans submitted must include details on how a district will transition between tiers and shift to remote instruction and the adapted learning plan if indicated by local health directives or statewide public health orders necessitate school closures.
With a deadline of Aug. 3 for district plan submission, the Uinta County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees will need to discuss and approve a plan prior to that date, meaning it is likely to be on the agenda during the board’s annual July budget meeting, scheduled for 6 p.m. on Monday, July 13. The school board has conducted meetings via Zoom video conferencing for the past several months, with links for the public to view and participate in the meetings available on the district website and Facebook page.