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Wyoming Teacher Of The Year Warns Casper School District Of Burnout

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming’s 2021 “teacher of the year” warned Casper school district officials this week that teachers faced with the continuing burden of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic are burning out.

Alexis Barney, an Evansville Elementary School teacher, told Natrona County School Board trustees that the COVID pandemic has had lasting effects on her and her fellow educators.

“This year alone, I have seen more students receiving emotional support than I have ever seen in my teaching career,” Barney said.

But if the students are struggling, Barney questioned what this meant for the educators charged with leading them.

She said that teachers have been struggling with learning new systems while at the same time being asked to help students meet high academic expectations. This is not only a problem in Natrona County, but across the entire state of Wyoming, Barney noted.

“Even superheroes need help,” she said.

She told school officials that systemic changes were needed in order to recruit and retain staff, both within Natrona County and statewide.

“We need focused efforts in maintaining our educators, because many are sadly thinking of leaving the profession entirely,” Barney said. “Please recognize that these heroes in our classrooms are human, too.

Cowboy State Daily previously reported that school officials in Cody and Powell are seeing similar issues with teachers struggling to cope with pandemic-related challenges.

Substitutes have been in short order across the state as wel. Ten Sleep’s school recently had to go to remote learning due to a lack of teachers who were well enough to educate in person.

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Wyoming Teachers, School Administrators Continue To Struggle With Pandemic

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

Across the country, school staff are feeling the strain as the pandemic wears on.

And school administrators are trying their best to prop up their employees.

Tim Foley is the interim superintendent for Park County School District No. 6 in Cody. He has worked in the district for 10 years, his wife is a teacher and he has two school-age children – so Foley has a unique perspective on how the pandemic is affecting students and staff.

“I get to hear how my wife’s experiences are going with students that are in remote learning or quarantined,” he said, “and then I have an eighth grader and a sophomore, so I get to experience remote learning as a parent as well.”

Foley said the current school year has probably been more difficult than last because each district in the county has been allowed to make their own rules when it comes to pandemic protocols. 

“Last year, we all were doing the same thing,” he said. “So every district was requiring masking, and we had health orders, and it just seemed like there was a great deal of consistency. But this year, you know, I think we’re all pretty tired of COVID.”

Jay Curtis, the Superintendent for Park County School District 1 in Powell, applauded the way his employees are staying strong during this trying time.

“I think that the teachers are holding up remarkably well,” he said. “They are a resilient bunch. However, our teachers are definitely feeling the strain of the school year already.”

As this school year began, Foley said the Cody district made the decision to afford parents, students and staff as much choice as possible while still following health recommendations. So masks are not  required, but students and staff can wear masks if they choose.

“And then if a child has close contact with another individual (who tests positive for the virus), we have required them to quarantine,” he said. “And I think that’s really what’s put a strain on our system, is having these students that are quarantined, because they’re quarantined for 10 days, they can test on day five, and if they’re negative, they can come back to school on day eight. But that still means a student’s out of school for eight days.”

That quarantine period requires teachers to do extra work, preparing lessons for students who are physically in the classroom, while trying to provide remote learning. 

“Now sometimes remote learning is paper-pencil packets that are sent home, sometimes it’s using our learning management system, which is called Canvas, that mainly takes place at the middle school and the high school,” Foley said. “But then the teachers have also tried to zoom with students.”

He said complications arise for students who may not have access to a consistent wireless signal, or whose requirements to stay home cause issues for working parents.

“Last week, we did send a survey out to our staff, asking them about potential changes to our quarantine protocol,” he said. “And early next week, our administrators, our nurses, other district leaders, along with input from public health, we’re going to look at a change to our quarantine protocol, as far as what we are going to ask of students when they are in close contact with someone who tests positive.”

But teaching remotely is only one of the complications. Another issue is the need for substitute teachers, which are in higher demand due to quarantine and isolation protocols.

“Historically, September is a difficult month for us for substitutes,” Foley said. “Partly because of where we live, because many people have summer jobs, or they run their own business, and we still have tourists in September, many are still tied up with that kind of work, and they just can’t substitute. And so usually, by October, we see a little relief from that.”

But because of the pandemic, Foley said many regular substitutes have been reluctant to return to school.

“I think it’s gotten better, but it’s still not great,” he said. 

Curtis agreed the situation has created a challenge.

“When we are short substitutes, we have to rearrange, put in para-educators that are certified,” he said. “We might have to combine some classes, we might have principals subbing a class. We just have to scramble around and make it work.”

Curtis explained that he has been working with Northwest College in Powell to create a substitute teacher training program.

“And I’m actually teaching it myself because they couldn’t find an instructor,” he said.

Curtis said 25 people attended the class, including a few from Cody.

“I’m hoping we can get a pretty good turnaround on the transcripts in Northwest College to get these folks certified,” he said. “Hopefully that acts as a pressure relief valve on the substitute situation.”

But teachers aren’t the only positions being filled by substitutes.

“We don’t have a large substitute pool for school bus drivers,” Foley said, citing the specific requirements needed to drive school bus, along with the extracurricular activities that pull regular drivers away for out-of-town events. 

School nurses and administrative secretaries are also feeling the weight of the extra work required to stay in control of the pandemic.

“We hired three contact tracers to take the burden off of our nurses and principals,” Curtis said. “Because when you have one get through the door with COVID, it takes up a principal’s (or nurse’s) entire day, tracking them through the day, making phone calls.” 

Foley said the district is doing its best to support school staff during this stressful time.

“One of the things that we’ve been talking about is how we can change remote learning or change quarantine just to make this more manageable,” he said. “Because one of the things that I think our teachers are trying to do is to recreate the classroom experience in a remote environment, and that’s nearly impossible to do. And we just don’t want them to try to burn the candle at both ends, so we’re really trying to lessen that burden on our teachers, because we’re only about close to 12 weeks into the school year, and teachers are tired. And that’s just not a sustainable model.”

“We are trying to actively not put more on our teachers’ plates than we absolutely have to,” said Curtis. “People cannot do a lot of extra work right now, and maintain their sanity.”

Foley said the district is also offering mental health counseling as part of the benefit package. 

“So a staff member can use one of our mental health counselors in the community, and then they just work with human resources,” he explained. 

“I just can’t say enough good things about the teachers that we have in Powell,” Curtis added, “because so many of them, even though they’re weary, they just maintain such a great attitude and they know that what we’re doing matters and they want to do what’s best for kids.”

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Cheyenne School District Experiencing Milk Shortage

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

There have been shortages of chicken wings, fireworks and ammunition experienced all over the nation, but Wyoming’s largest school district is facing a shortage of another kind: milk.

Laramie County School District No. 1 announced Tuesday that it was struggling to receive enough milk for students at breakfast and lunch.

“This year, due to the effects of the pandemic, we are experiencing unprecedented supply-chain challenges,” said Carla Bankes, LCSD1’s Nutrition Services program administrator. 

Students are being encouraged to bring refillable water bottles to school.

Bankes explained that her department has been able to ward off other pandemic-related food shortages by  purchasing larger quantities and using direct shipments. 

However, since milk is a perishable item and the shortage is widespread, she said the district does not have a ready solution.  

“We continue to problem solve,” she said. “Whatever is served must align with the National Food  Program. We have evaluated other options including bottled water, but there is also bottling shortage.”  

Additionally, the shortages are intermittent, allowing some schools to have milk or other items when other schools do not. 

“We ask parents and staff to be patient as we work through this nationwide shortage,” Bankes said. “With a little grace, we will navigate these issues just as we have done throughout the pandemic.” 

According to Colorado TV station KRDO, Colorado schools have also been affected by the milk shortage.

The station reported that similar to other industries across the West and the nation, there are dozens of unfilled jobs in the dairy industry, including drivers transporting milk to businesses.

According to Bloomberg, the supply of basic goods at U.S. grocery stores and restaurants is once again falling victim to intermittent shortages and delays.

Bloomberg additionally reported that in Denver, broken parts at a local milk supplier’s plant affected shipments of half-pint cartons while also disrupting the supply and distribution of cereal, tortillas and juice.

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Saratoga School District Bans Teaching Of Critical Race Theory

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Saratoga’s school district officially banned the teaching of critical race theory in its schools during a meeting of the district’s board of trustees earlier this week.

On Monday, the board members unanimously adopted a resolution to ban teachers and staff from offering instruction on critical race theory or similar ideas. The district will not purchase any materials or bring any speakers to the schools that promote the ideas, according to the resolution.

“I believe that God’s children should all be treated the same,” one person at the meeting said.

Instead, the district will promote ideologies found in the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution. Teachers will be allowed to talk about subjects such as racism, but will not be allowed to promote or encourage critical race theory.

Critical race theory is described by some as proposing that racism is a social construct ingrained in American life and laws.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Education proposed guidelines for American history and civics education grant programs which encourage schools to use curriculum related to the New York Times’ 1619 Project (a journalism project that focuses on the consequences of slavery and contributions of Black Americans), critical race theory and the work of anti-racism activist and author Ibram X. Kendi.

Carbon County Republican Party Chairman Joey Correnti IV praised the district’s move on Thursday.

“I definitely hope that this firm statement is the beginning of something grander across Wyoming, and I know that if any dedicated group of individual citizens have the fortitude, dedication, and talent, to make an impactful effort that will inspire others across the state to take a lasting stand, it is the liberty minded grassroots voices of rural Wyoming and especially those of Carbon County,” he said in a text to Cowboy State Daily.

“That’s really the great thing about grassroots efforts that are based on legitimate principles and not subjective feelings or personal benefit, there is always more than one group working on the issue because it is an issue of the people with whom all powers of government are inherent!” he said.

Last month, Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, and Senate President Dan Dockstader, R-Afton, introduced legislation that would combat the teaching of CRT in Wyoming schools.

The legislation would require a publication of all instructional materials used by K-12 public schools in the state and modify the requirements for instruction of state and federal constitutions.

Earlier this year, U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis backed a bill that would prohibit federal funding from being used to teach the New York Times’ 1619 Project (named after the year Black slaves were first brought to the American colonies) and critical race theory in schools.

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Two Wyoming Schools Named As National Blue Ribbon Winners

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Two Wyoming schools are included in the latest list of the U.S. Department of Education‘s National Blue Ribbon Schools.

Tongue River Elementary School in Ranchester and Powell Middle School were the only two schools in Wyoming selected for the list based on their academic performance or ability to close achievement gaps in groups of students.

Only 325 schools in the nation were chosen as “Blue Ribbon” winners.

Both schools were nominated due to their exemplary high performance.

U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis celebrated the honor on social media on Wednesday.

“I am excited to meet staff from both schools in November when they travel to Washington, D.C., for a national awards ceremony celebrating their accomplishments!” she wrote.

In the nomination form for Tongue River, principal Anna Griffin wrote that everyone at the school considers themselves a part of one big family.

“Every child deserves the very best education and support,” she wrote. “We pride ourselves in the culture that has been created by students, staff and our community partnerships. Both in and out of our building, we have built a community of kindness and acceptance and work tirelessly to educate the whole child.”

Powell Middle School principal Kyle Rohrer praised the community’s hard work ethic, which he credits to the agricultural and ranching backgrounds of many of the students.

“The community is instilled with strong values, morals and ethics and is supportive of education,” he wrote.

According to the USDE, the Blue Ribbon program recognizes public and private elementary, middle and high schools. The program has been running since 1982.

Every year, the department seeks out and celebrates great American schools that demonstrate that all students can achieve to high levels. Since its inception, the program has bestowed more than 10,000 awards to over 9,000 schools, with some schools winning multiple awards.

The award affirms the hard work of students, educators, families and communities in creating safe and welcoming schools where students master challenging and engaging content. The National Blue Ribbon School flag gracing an entry or flying overhead is a widely recognized symbol of exemplary teaching and learning.

Just over 300 public schools were chosen as Blue Ribbon winners this year, while 23 non-public schools won.

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Teen Arrested At Laramie High Officially Withdraws From School

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Grace Smith, the Laramie High School student who was arrested following her refusal to wear a mask at school, officially withdrew from the school on Wednesday.

Grace spoke during the public comment portion of the Albany County School District 1 board meeting on Wednesday evening, chastising the board members for the situation she is now in and officially withdrawing as a student at the school.

“I was unlawfully arrested from my own school,” Grace told the board. “You have bestowed an egregious amount of power upon yourselves. You have instilled a sense of false hope in each parent that has given you the privilege of educating their child.”

Grace and her father Andy Smith did not immediately return Cowboy State Daily’s request for comment on Thursday. It was not immediately clear what the teen planned to do to finish out her high school career.

Grace was arrested on Thursday at Laramie High School because she refused to leave after being suspended for not following the mandatory mask policy. The officer told her she was trespassing.

“I want to make it very clear to you that you do not own us as kids,” Grace told the board. “You have no right to tell us who we get to be and you have absolutely no right to make our health decisions for us.”

Grace went into custody willingly and was polite with officers when arrested, videos taken and shared by her father show. The teen has also received $1,000 in trespassing fines, which she noted to the board during her speech.

The school district implemented a mask mandate in early September after Albany County and Wyoming’s COVID cases continue to climb, as well as its hospitalizations. The board covered this topic at the Wednesday meeting, again extending the mandate until Nov. 12.

Grace told the board they were infringing on Albany County students’ constitutional rights by forcing them to wear masks in school.

She did note that she wasn’t arguing about whether or not masks were effective with the situation, but about the choice to wear one.

“High school is hard enough already. Why are we making it harder?” she said.

Andy Smith told Cowboy State Politics that initially when the mandate was implemented in September, the school district was going to allow exemption forms, but Superintendent Jubal Yennie ultimately revoked them and only allowed exemptions under eight criteria, none of which Grace met.

Grace also told the board that she has been bullied, discriminated against and threatened by other students due to her refusal to wear a mask.

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Ten Sleep School Cancels Classes Due To Lack Of Teachers

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

The school in Ten Sleep has canceled in-person classes for the next week due to a lack of teachers and staff, who are out due to illness.

Classes were dismissed at 1 p.m. on Wednesday and classes would go virtual Thursday, Monday and Tuesday, as school was already out on Friday, according to an announcement from district superintendent Jimmy Phelps. All school activities scheduled for the next week are canceled.

It was not clear if staff and teachers are out sick due to the coronavirus or other reasons.

Ten Sleep students were sent home Wednesday with any materials they might need for the next week.

According to school officials, the district’s board of trustees recently changed the school’s COVID quarantine procedures when a student or staff member is exposed. When someone from the school tests positive for the coronavirus, contact tracing will be conducted and staff members and the parents of an exposed student will be notified.

The parents and staff will make a decision as to whether or not the person needs to quarantine, as long as they are not experiencing any COVID symptoms. Anyone who chooses to attend school during the quarantine period is encouraged to wear a mask and to be tested for the virus.

As of Tuesday, Washakie County had 121 active COVID cases, the 10th highest in the state, and about 36% of the county was fully vaccinated.

The school district does not have a mask mandate in place for students.

Rawlins High School, whose district also does not have a mask mandate, canceled all of its homecoming activities late last week due to a COVID “situation” at the school.

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Northwest College In Powell Considering a Rebrand

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

Northwest College in Powell is considering a name change.

The small college is doing well, by all accounts. Interim President Lisa Watson said enrollment and graduation rates are as strong as – or stronger than – other similar institutions, despite the pandemic.

“Northwest College actually didn’t do as bad as a lot of the other colleges, even within our state,” she said. “Where last year, people were down 8% off of normals, we were down 2%, something like that.”

But the college is currently considering rebranding itself, an effort to increase the institution’s appeal. A campus and community discussion about rebranding and possibly renaming the college is scheduled for Wednesday. 

“The conversation is more about whether we should rebrand or rename, and a combination thereof,” said Watson. “When you’re looking at revisiting how college operates, or how you know what you’re doing with what your offerings are, then rebranding happens a lot of times.” But Watson explained that renaming is a bigger conversation. 

“I think that’s the conversation that people feel more emotional about. The name Yellowstone College came up, it’s been talked about in the past. I’m not set on a name, and I’m not set on doing it either, which is part of the reason why we’re doing the panel on Wednesday.”

The college is currently in Phase Three of the Rebranding conversation. Phase One, which began in July of last year, involved gathering ideas and hearing feedback about ways the College can reposition itself; Phase Two involved testing core options and brainstorming ways to better position the College.

“Phase three is about building our roadmap,” said Watson. “And remember, the roadmap is just a map designed to kind of set you on a course and get you going in a direction.”

Watson says the rebranding conversation is fundamentally about how the college can differentiate itself from other similar institutions.

“The idea behind it, is this change in a good way? It’s change that says, How do we refresh? How do we reinvigorate? How do we, you know, bring the college to the community in a way that says, yes, they serve Me? Yes, I want to go here. Yes, Northwest college, or whatever college dot dot dot – hey, that appeals to me, and that’s where I want to be.”

The public discussion will take place Wednesday, October 13, at 6 p.m. and will be available live via Zoom at https://nwc.edu/events

“We really want people to come to the meeting, and just learn about why people rebrand, why people rename, both in business and in higher education,” said Watson.

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Wyoming Receives More Than $300M Total In Federal Funding For School Districts

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming will receive more than $100 million in federal funding for its K-12 schools, totaling more than $300 million in funds received this year from the federal government.

On Friday, the U.S. Department of Education approved the state’s American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief plan, meaning it would release the final $101 million in funding for the state from this program.

WDE chief academic officer Shelley Hamel told Cowboy State Daily on Monday that 90% of the funds from the ARP ESSER plan go to the school districts, and it is up to their discretion on how to spend the money. In total, the WDE will allocate more than $273 million to the state school districts.

“The uses for the money are really all about keeping education moving for students and addressing any gaps that might have been created because of the [COVID] interruption,” Hamel said. “For example, one plan was about shifting to online learning, because that’s where we all were as a country.”

The final 10% of the funds from the federal government will go into a reserve, Hamel said.

Hamel explained that despite the funds being allocated for the school districts, all of the districts will have to submit information about how they plan to spend the money to ensure they are following federal guidelines.

Wyoming’s plan detailed how the state is using and plans to use ARP ESSER funds to safely reopen and sustain the safe operation of schools and equitably expand opportunity for students who need it most, particularly those most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Earlier this year, the USDE distributed two-thirds of ARP ESSER funds, a total of $81 billion, to all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The remaining third of the funds was made available Friday once state plans were approved.

“Wyoming is anxious to fund and implement transformational educational initiatives that narrow learning gaps and extend learning opportunities,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow. “My office and I look forward to supporting communities in their endeavors.”

The ARP ESSER state plans approved by the the USDE on Friday, including Wyoming, showed how states are using federal pandemic resources to support safe, in-person instruction and meet the social, emotional, mental health and academic needs of students, with a focus on the students most impacted by the pandemic. For example:

  • Safely Reopening Schools and Sustaining Safe Operations: The WDE developed a Smart Start Guidance document for the reopening of schools. The Smart Start Taskforce facilitated a series of meetings during May and June 2020 to consider research and utilize CDC Guidance and state and local health requirements to develop a practical guidance tool to assist school districts in reopening in the fall of 2020 and 2021. Schools are continuing to operate using the structures developed in the Smart Start Guidance, including CDC guidance, and state and local health requirements.
  • Addressing the Academic Impact of Lost Instructional Time: The WDE will award some ARP ESSER funds through competitive district grants titled “Addressing Gaps and Accelerated Learning.” Districts will select evidence-based interventions consistent with student needs and specific focus areas, including kindergarten readiness, computer science, postsecondary partnerships, postsecondary transition programming, and content specific professional development. Additionally, interventions will include tribal or Wind River Reservation district partnerships. Grant applications will open immediately with anticipated award notification no later than Dec. 15.
  • Staffing to Support Students’ Needs: With ARP ESSER funds, the WDE has funded a state school nurse position to provide assistance to districts on implementation of state and local health orders. Additionally, the WDE will use ARP ESSER funds to add necessary staff in districts including highly-qualified interventionists and tutors, counselors, school psychologists and paraprofessionals.

“I am excited to announce approval of Wyoming’s plan,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. “It is heartening to see, reflected in these state plans, the ways in which states are thinking deeply about how to use American Rescue Plan funds to continue to provide critical support to schools and communities, particularly as we enter the upcoming academic year.

The approval of these plans enables states to receive vital, additional American Rescue Plan funds to quickly and safely reopen schools for full-time, in-person learning; meet students’ academic, social, emotional, and mental health needs; and address disparities in access to educational opportunity that were exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. The state plans that have been submitted to the Department lay the groundwork for the ways in which an unprecedented infusion of federal resources will be used to address the urgent needs of America’s children and build back better.”

The distribution of ARP ESSER funds is part of the USDE’s effort to support students and districts as they work to re-engage students impacted by the pandemic, address inequities exacerbated by COVID-19 and build the nation’s education system back better than before.

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Report: Sheridan High Named Best In Wyoming

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Sheridan High School was ranked as the best in Wyoming, according to a recent survey done by the U.S. News and World Report.

The publication does an annual ranking looking at data from 24,000 public high schools in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Nearly 18,000 schools were ranked on six factors (including college readiness, math and reading proficiency and performance, the graduation rate and underserved student performance), based on their performance on state assessments and how well they prepare students for college.

Sheridan came in number one in the state, but 1,061 in the national rankings. The best high school in the nation is Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia.

Sheridan High students have the opportunity to take advanced placement courses and exams, and the AP participation rate at the school is 45%. The school’s graduation rate is around 87%, which is the state’s median, too.

The total minority enrollment at the high school is 10% and 26% of students are considered economically disadvantaged.

According to the Sheridan Press, the high school has been ranked as one of the state’s best high schools in 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2020.

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