Wyoming Schools Adapt To New Learning Challenges Amidst COVID-19 Closures

Apr 10, 2020

Credit sheridanwyoming.com

This story is part of a two-part series on how schools across the state are handling the switch to adapted learning.

When Superintendent Craig Dougherty first heard Gov. Mark Gordon's orders extending closures of public places through the end of April, he knew the district would have to switch to virtual learning.

"The first thing we had to do was look down and say, 'do our teachers have the capacity to provide virtual learning?' And if they did, how many would need professional development? And so, we also looked at our families. Do all children have access to computers?" Sheridan County School District #2's Superintendent Dougherty said.

The 48 school districts across the state are wrapping up their first weeks under a whole new system of adapted learning. Administrators say it's come with challenges for administrators, parents, kids and teachers.

Dougherty said Sheridan #2, like many districts across the state, surveyed families asking what technology and internet access looked like for them.

A big concern through education's shift to the virtual world has been internet access. After some quick problem solving, Dougherty said, of nearly 3,600 kids in the Sheridan #2 district, about 20 families needed internet. Now, they've figured out connections for nearly all of them thanks to hotspots. Tech teams went through school equipment to make sure each student had a device to use.

After those initial technology challenges, teachers started getting together to figure out how and what they were going to teach.

"We've really got to be the most creative we've ever been in the history of education right now," Dougherty said.

Many districts now combine some live instruction or conversation over video-chat with video lessons kids can watch at any time. The turnaround for homework is a little longer. Students without internet access or a reliable connection can get hard copies mailed or brought to them.

Michael Thomas teaches American government and social studies at Sheridan High School.

Thomas said while there's less face-to-face interactions with students, he is getting more emails from them if they have questions.

"Which is really nice to see students being engaged in their own learning and taking on that responsibility, that if they don't understand something or something isn't making sense to have that initiative to reach out and send that email," Thomas said.

For kids at a younger level, the interactions are everything. Wade Kinsey teaches fourth grade at Woodland Park Elementary in Sheridan. He said he's been focusing on keeping kids spirits up.

"If I can provide some of that classroom community that we've spent months building over the course of the year that was taken from us, if I can get that back, that's the stuff that will make the difference for these kids," he said.

The flexibility is a huge part of making these adapted learning plans accessible for parents-especially if parents are working and have essential jobs. It still comes with a learning curve, though.

Becky Reid lives in Glenrock and has five kids in Converse County School District Number #2 ranging from a kindergartener to a high school senior. Converse #2's learning plan is pretty similar to Sheridan.

"The first day Monday, I work full time, and so I thought we would be able just sit down after dinner and just log in. And, oh my goodness, after I got two of them logged in, and I was having trouble. My email disappeared with codes and things, I don't know what happened. I was finally like, 'let's just go to bed, and try this again tomorrow,'" Reid said.

Reid added that it's only been a couple of days, and that teachers have been helpful in figuring out all the logistics that come with learning these new systems.

One big burden for parents working during closures has been figuring out childcare.

Reid's sister Keri Pasko has a kindergartner and a fifth grader in Converse #2. Luckily, Pasko and Reid work at the same grocery store, sometimes on opposite shifts, so they are able to watch each other's kids while the other works. Pasko said the flexible online school schedule has been a lifesaver.

"My kids, they can do a lot of it on their own, but when it comes to making sure things are handed in, that's still new right now. Of course, my kindergartner still needs me to read some instruction and that sort of thing. And so we have to be flexible. I had to have the conversation with my kids, that when mom's home, that's when we're doing school. Sometimes that's in the morning, sometimes that's in the evening," Pasko said.

But the switch to virtual learning may not be easy for every district across the state. Sheridan #2 Superintendent Craig Dougherty notes that the district has been working on its technology plan for years and it partnered with local groups, like Sheridan College and Whitney Benefits, which have financially supported growing these programs for students and teachers.

While all districts weren't prepared to make this drastic of a change, having school and community resources has made the switch a little easier.

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