State Superintendent On How Closures Will Affect Students, School Accountability

Mar 27, 2020

State Superintendent Jillian Balow
Credit Wyoming Department of Education

Top state officials are requiring Wyoming schools stay closed through April 17. State Superintendent Jillian Balow and the Wyoming Department of Education have been working with districts across the state to help figure how schools will work for all students if closures persist.

Wyoming Public Radio's Catherine Wheeler spoke with Balow first about how statewide exams have been canceled for this year.

Jillian Balow: President Trump announced waivers that were available for states that would essentially exempt states from some key assessment and accountability requirements. Wyoming immediately sought the waiver and was approved. And so what that means for our state is that we will not be taking the statewide WY-TOPP assessment. And we will not be figuring formal accountability that essentially grade schools on their performance based on a number of metrics.

Essentially we are at a point across the nation, including in Wyoming, where the validity and reliability of our statewide assessment was in jeopardy because students weren't in school, and were potentially losing instructional time leading up to the test. So we're really grateful for the waiver. And, you know, at this point, we're putting the health, safety and welfare of children and families above assessments. Certainly, that's not to say that we can't continue instruction. It will just be continued instruction without the statewide assessment looming.

Catherine Wheeler: And you also waived like instructional days for schools as well. Is that correct?

JB: All schools in Wyoming from March 16 through April 3 are in a hold harmless phase, which means that students are counted as present. But the governor and I have recommended that students do not attend school in a traditional sense. We have some school districts who have opted to provide some kind of instructional activities for students and others who may have bumped up against a spring break and did not provide instructional materials for students.

So for three weeks that hold harmless is basically school districts taking time to again monitor the health, welfare and wellbeing of children and families, and then stand up alternative instructional or education plans should we need to go beyond April 3 with school closures.

CW: Is there anything that the department is considering overall to kind of help out in those circumstances?

JB: We really don't anticipate that every school district will go to virtual education. Some will be a hybrid of virtual education and maybe phone calls. Some of them will utilize our state learning management system. And so I anticipate that there will be lots of different ways that school districts leverage both traditional and virtual learning opportunities for students. But we've really been trying to think about that at the state level. We've provided additional guidance on virtual education.

We've provided some additional training on our learning management system called Canvas, and we'll continue to do that too. You know, I anticipate that some of the biggest needs will be around building the capacity of teaching staff and faculty in making sure that they can meet the individual needs of learners regardless of what adapted learning, form or mode they go to. So we'll just continue providing as many resources and providing technical assistance and guidance that helps all districts, but we'll stop short of prescribing what that should look like for each district, knowing that it can look different for every district.

CW: And will any of this have a direct impact on either how schools are funded or any other potential impacts into the next year or years to come based off this?

JB: At this point it's not costing the state or school districts more or less. So when I say hold harmless, it really is just that. Schools are being funded today as if they're open. Should we go beyond April 3, that may look a little bit different. What we're working with schools and superintendents across the state on right now is coming up with an alternative education program. Should we continue school closures beyond April 3, that ensures that students still have access to a high quality education and that essential teachings and learnings are still available for all students.

This interview was recorded on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. On Friday, March 27, Gov. Mark Gordon and State Public Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist extended three existing orders that close down public places in the state. That includes schools.

Since the announcement, Balow has issued guidance for districts to continue operation. Districts must have their adapted learning plans approved by Wyoming Department of Education by April 6.

"School doors may be closed to students, but Wyoming education is open for business. The desire by teachers to connect with their students and provide learning opportunities has been inspiring. Teaching and learning while practicing social distancing is a new concept for many. Teachers, parents, and students all need support in order for it to be successful," Balow said in a statement.

Balow said districts should be ready on April 6 to "provide an equitable education for all students in grades K-12 while access to school buildings is limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic."

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Catherine Wheeler, at cwheel11@uwyo.edu.