LUSK – In conjunction with recommendations from the Niobrara County Public Health officer, Dr. Joleen Falkenburg, the Niobrara County School Board made the decision at their regular meeting Aug. 3 to adopt a three tier “Smart Start” plan for a return to school for staff and students. This plan will start at tier one, the least stringent of any recommendations or requirements.
The meeting was called to order at 6 p.m. by Chair Joel Richardson. Following the pledge and statement of mission and vision, members of the public were invited to voice their opinions on the reopening of district buildings for in-person classes for kindergarten through 12th grade students.
Staff reported later in the meeting on results of a survey sent to parents to gauge preferences on reopening plans. A total of 87 people responded to the surveys, with 68% of the families having students in LEMS and 27% at the high school.
Most of the respondents, 85%, favored on-campus, in person instruction. Another 11.5% preferred the opposite – a fully virtual, remote instructional model. The rest preferred “other,” unspecified options.
Preferences on precautions to keep students and staff healthy and safe included increased sanitation and hand sanitation efforts, along with daily screenings of all campus staff and visitors by the school. Other options included parents taking at least some of the responsibility for screening students daily. Many wanted parents to take more responsibility.
Dr. Falkenburg was present, as were several members of the public, as Superintendent of Schools George Mirich presented the three tiers. Mirich said reopening plans continue to be impacted by public health orders issued by Governor Mark Gordon.
Tier one is all in-person instruction. There is some discussion the temperature screenings could go away and that masks will be required in some instances. Until the state issues these mandates the school will not know for sure.
As of right now in tier one, the schools will follow state and local health directives. The schools will continue to deliver high quality standards-based learning opportunities, IEP and 504 accommodations, Mirich said. As instructional plans change students and parents will be notified prior to the change.
The district does offer WYVA for all families who do not wish to have their students return to the school environment, he said. The goal of Niobrara County School District is to deliver instruction as much as possible in the traditional manner.
When distancing is not an option, then face coverings will be worn. Adults will wear masks when in close proximity to students, but masks will not be required full time for students pre-K through fifth at this time. Students in grades six and older will be wearing masks during passing periods or other transition times. Multiple use rooms and supplies will be wiped down twice in between students. All special classes and recess and lunch will be observed as currently scheduled, because the numbers are low enough to follow health guidelines, Mirich said.
Tier two involves remote instruction, with teachers and some students in the classroom while other students are at home, he said. Tier two is delivered instruction to certain students. These will be delivered by a teacher in a classroom with students present while also presenting simultaneous remote instructions using synchronous communication methods.
The most stringent requirements, tier three, would be implemented if a mandate is issued to fully close the schools down again, Mirich said. This is a fully online environment.
The plan also outlines communication from the district and a transportation plan. Masking on the bus is a strong possibility. It is possible students who ride the bus could be screened up to three times prior to their arrival in the classroom.
The first responsibility for screening is on parents. It is imperative students showing any symptoms of illness are kept home, Mirich said. They cannot be seen in the building. Anyone who gets on the bus will be screened. Students with a fever will not be allowed on the bus. There are five questions that will be asked of students prior to getting on the bus.
Everyone will be screened when entering district facilities, including having their temperature checked and asked to answer a series of questions regarding symptoms, Mirich said. Plans are in the works for continued instructions for students who do need to stay at home. There are enough devices for grades 3-12 to have a device at their house, including internet “hot spots” for those who do not have internet at home. If internet is simply not doable, then paper copies of assignments will be transported to the students.
Additional digital devices are available for students in kindergarten through second grade who need to stay home, Mirich said. The majority of assignments will be paperwork, that can be delivered and picked up.
Advocates for local plan management
Dr. Falkenburg continues to advocate for local control of reopening plans, so larger school districts in Casper and Cheyenne do not dictate reopening measures around the state. She thinks statistically, if you find the right data, coronavirus is probably not as contagious or deadly as was first believed. The threshold will be impossible to really nail down, Falkenburg said.
The best Falkenburg can do is continue to communicate with the schools, she said. Even in previous respiratory seasons when the influenza cases were high, she would recommend shutting down for a day. Age nine and younger students will be sick a lot during the school year. She doesn’t want them out of school constantly because of some symptoms. She is building up her rapid test supplies to try and help with quick screening.
The dangers associated with this virus are the same as any other disease. Falkenburg said she’s more fearful of other side-effects of COVID-19 – depression, economic impacts and other social difficulties – if productive activities are not provided for students and teenagers.
Parents also need to understand that, while there is some loosening of privacy guidelines, Falkenburg still needs permission to release information on sick students to the district. It is ultimately going to take a lot to force her to shut the schools down. She wants to respect everyone’s concerns but she has more fears about the ripple effect of imposing COVID restrictions than the virus itself.
“We, in the county, have the fewest cases we have right now today,” Falkenburg said. “Numbers are only going to go up, so people should not panic just because those numbers go up. Asymptomatic testing is going to cause numbers to go up because of the additional testing they are doing at the prison. Rapid testing really will make all the difference.”
If a parent or guardian believes their child’s health is at risk, their student does not have to be masked, Falkenburg said. Individuals engaged in athletic activities would also be exempt.
With 50 or fewer in an enclosed space and 250 outside, most classroom and district activities are still within the allowed thresholds.
“The last thing we want is the school to be closed,” Mirich said. “We need to take whatever measures are required to keep as much open as possible.
“Public health can provide thermometers to families,” he said. “For indoor sports, if you can distance. you don’t have to wear a mask. If you can’t, then you have to wear a mask. Out of town spectators will be allowed at this point. Once 250 people are in the gym then no more can come in.”
• Heather Goddard offered to do outdoor class photos for last years’ classes if the schools would like to offer them.
• Following the public discussion the agenda was approved with the removal of Item I. This was replaced with additional recommendations. Those policies will be discussed at the next meeting.
• LEMS Principal Lu Kasper provided updates to the board regarding the first day back for staff. Teachers are working on plans for social distancing in classrooms. They are teaching respectful behavior of all perspectives on the virus and how to be compassionate and teach students to be respectful of all opinions and impacts. Staff are working on handbooks for LEMS and NCHS. This includes adjusting and adapting the Chromebook agreement so it reflects the possibility of sending those devices home.
• Caroline Hickerson, Wyoming Virtual Academy High School principal reported enrollment is surging and they are trying to be proactive and stay ahead of requests. Elementary is experiencing another boom and more teachers will be needed.
WYVA is also experiencing a surge in special education enrollments. This number is significantly increasing.
Nickerson also reported the informal preliminary information on ACT test scores is students in the WYVA high school are doing “very well.”
WYVA registration closes at the end of September.
• Stuart Larson’s reports looked slightly different because of the earlier nature of the meeting. Most of the reports were available but not all were done. The auditor will be at the office in September. There will be one more wave of enrollment for the 457 to get staff included in the September match. State reports are all due Aug. 12.
• Mirich stated that during the recalibration meeting there was interest and concern in how the virtual school students are being funded. The recalibration is not about meeting the needs of students but rather about lowering costs. Mirich will continue to keep the board apprised of how that situation plays out.
• Board commended the district on their landscaping and maintenance around the buildings.
• The consent agenda was approved as presented.
• The board moved to approve the reopen plan as presented by administration for the 2020-21 school year. This motion carried.
• The board approved the alternative plan for the high school principal position but gave a directive to Mirich to pursue any candidate that may present for the position as well. The alternative plan involves reassigning the principal responsibilities across several positions involving Special Education director Robyn Heth, Superintendent Mirich, Business Manager Stuart Larson and LEMS Principal Lu Kaspers.
• The board accepted the resignation of high school counselor Peggy Whitman.
• The board took a five minute recess and then moved into executive session for personnel discussion.
Open session resumed at 8:05 p.m.
• Approved hiring elementary and behavior teachers. Nila McCann as an elementary teacher. Approved Jeanna Rose as a behavior teacher for a temporary need.
• Approved hiring Norma Langston as concessions and Matt VandeBossche as the TeamMates coordinator.
• Approved hiring additional WYVA teaching positions as presented and listed.
• Approved school wide title 1 designation application. Lu Kaspers spoke of moving from a targeted title school to a full title 1. As a targeted title 1 school they can only work with a small number of children that have to qualify. As a full title 1 then all staff can work with any students to meet the goals of the building.
This designation is for K-8 at this time with plans to expand to the high school. This will assist with both funding and educational goals including breakfast and snack funding. This program will also help with sustaining the preschool.
Kasper requested a volunteer board member for the committee that has to be formed for this designation. The district will examine if pulling in WYVA information would benefit both the brick and mortar designation and obtain funds for family supply assistance for WYVA families. Motion carried.
• Accepted fuel bids for the 2020-2021 school year from Panhandle Coop for diesel, leaded gasoline and premium diesel and a bid from Westco for propane at Lance Creek school.
• The board moved into executive session at 8:22 p.m. for superintendent evaluation. They adjourned the meeting following this session.