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Wyoming's top educator: Schools will likely only open in 'limited capacity' in coming weeks

Wyoming's top educator: Schools will likely only open in 'limited capacity' in coming weeks

Coronavirus press conference

Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow speaks during a press conference about COVID-19 last month inside the Capitol building. Also pictured are state health officer Dr. Alexia Harrist (center) and Office of Homeland Security Director Lynn Budd. 

Wyoming’s top educator suggested schools may only open to “special populations” for the duration of this school year and that any openings wouldn’t come until after May 15, just a few weeks before districts will wrap up their spring semesters.

“Schools are to continue implementing their adaptive learning plans that are good through the end of the school years,” state Superintendent Jillian Balow said at a Thursday news conference, referring to the plans districts drew up to continue to educate their students through closures. “If schools and local health officers deem it appropriate to bring back special population in safe ways, according to the guidance from health officers, they may do that until there’s further news.”

Physical school buildings have been closed for a month now as part of Wyoming’s efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus, though districts have been educating students largely through the internet in recent weeks. The order keeping schools closed technically expires April 30, but Gov. Mark Gordon said Thursday that state health officer Dr. Alexia Harrist would begin releasing new, modified orders imminently that would extend until May 15.

While the governor did not specifically mention schools, Balow linked any forthcoming decision on schools to the modified orders. By May 15, many schools will be right up against the end of the spring semester, having gone six weeks with virtual learning. Natrona County School District, which begins its school year later than most and ends it in early June, would have just three weeks left after May 15, for instance.

Balow hedged on saying definitely if schools were indeed shuttered through the rest of the year. But she did say that any decisions to open them “in a limited capacity” — either this spring or summer — would come after discussions with health officers. The “limited capacity” referred to students who needed in-person instruction, like those who received special education services.

Some districts have indicated they’re already preparing for schools to remain closed through this academic year. Sweetwater County School District No. 2, for instance, announced last week that it would finish up with online learning. The Glenrock-based Converse County district was unrolling multiple internet options for students to ensure they could be educated regardless of location; some of those options are on back order.

The University of Wyoming will complete its school year online, a decision that will run through the summer semester, as well.

Balow said that each district will be required to submit a plan to reopen schools in the coming months to the state Department of Education after consulting with the health officer in the district’s county. She called that level of inter-agency collaboration “the new normal.” When she described the plan, she said the plans would be necessary “in order to fully reopen in summer, August or next school year.”

After Balow finished speaking, Gordon expressed encouragement that there was a “process to open schools in the fall.”

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Education and Health Reporter

Seth Klamann joined the Star-Tribune in 2016 and covers education and health. A 2015 graduate of the University of Missouri and proud Kansas City native, Seth worked for newspapers in Milwaukee and Omaha before coming to Casper.

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