Earlier this month, the state Department of Education released parameters for reopening the state’s 347 schools. By early August, the state’s 48 school districts must submit their own plans in accordance with the guidelines. 

Each district must submit a plan that addresses three scenarios: The loosest one, in which schools are open for in-person learning; a “hybrid” scenario that uses a mix of in-person and digital learning because of health orders; and closed, in which school buildings are closed and students are learning from home. 

The parameters released by the state are respectful of the differing needs and situations of different communities and recognize that what is right for Cheyenne schools might not be right for Johnson County schools. 

But the parameters fall far short of what we would expect from a department with more than 100 employees and access to many more resources than any district in the state. Rather than taking a leadership role and using the state’s resources to guide districts,  Superintendent Jillian Balow and the Department of Education punted. 

While local control is a closely held Wyoming value, we are living in unprecedented times, and most communities do not have access to the same epidemiologists and infectious disease experts as the state does. 

On Monday, JCSD 1 issued a draft “Smart Start” document which outlined how the schools would reopen in the fall. The draft did not include any directives for how the district will operate if it must move to hybrid or virtual learning – items which must be drafted and approved by the board by Aug. 3. 

Now replicate that effort 47 more times, because as it is, each of the state’s 48 district administrators and volunteer school boards are going through the exact same exercise, all working to draft return-to-school plans that then must be approved by the Department of Education. 

Based on the incredibly short timeline (less than three weeks) between when the 48 individual district plans must be submitted and when schools are expected to open, we can only presume that the Department of Education’s review of the plans will be perfunctory at best. This could endanger the health of our kids, teachers and even our most at-risk citizens. It could also stunt the long-term educational development of our children, placing them at a lifelong disadvantage.

Certainly there is a better, more logical approach.

The department should create blue ribbon panels consisting of education and medical professionals – one each for small, medium and large districts. Panels would be charged with drafting opening plans for each of the three scenarios identified by the state. 

These plans would not be mandated. Districts could choose to adopt the plans, adopt the plans with modifications approved by the department or draft their own plans and submit them to the state for approval. 

There is still time for the Department of Education to be a leader in this effort to return students to the classroom. But the window to do so is rapidly closing. We implore Gov. Mark Gordon, Superintendent Balow and the Departments of Education and Health to take action and lead now... before it’s too late.

 

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