ROCK SPRINGS — As Sweetwater County School District No. 1 gears up for the start of a new school year Monday that will look different than it ever has before, board members say the district has done the hard work necessary for a successful launch.
At the board’s Aug. 10 meeting, trustees and members of the public discussed possibilities and concerns for starting school during the COVID-19 pandemic. Options for students under the district’s Smart Start Plan, include in-person instruction or classroom-based virtual education.
Board members agreed that the district has put in a great deal of work, resulting in what they called a good reopening plan.
“We believe it is a good plan, and the bases have been covered,” Board Chairwoman Carol Jelaco said. “That being said, a plan is only as good as its implementation.”
Jelaco said her expectation is that the plan will be followed “to the letter,” and that administrators and staff are to be examples in areas such as face coverings and maintaining as much distance as possible.
Trustee Max Mickelson also stressed the importance of complying with all aspects of the plan. It is hard for people to understand the work Sweetwater No. 1 has done to prepare to open school and provide the best education on an individualized basis that is safe, he said.
Mickelson said it is critical that the district’s schools are open for many reasons for students of every background, and that students, employees and the community need to work together.
“The true legacy of the West is looking out for each other,” he said.
Regardless of what people may or may not believe about COVID-19, Mickelson said they should realize that the district has shown up and taken care of its students, staff and community in a spectacular way. He expressed the hope that people would pause for a minute in their bickering and appreciate what the district has done.
Everyone needs to pull together so that the experience of starting school this year can be a positive one for families, students and employees, Mickelson said.
Jelaco also emphasized working together for safety.
“We want our schools to be open, but we want them to be safe,” she said. “I can’t think of a worse scenario than for us to have a surge.”
It is not a question of “if,” but “when” cases arise in the district, Jelaco said. When that happens, she said the district needs to work with local health officials to make sure cases are kept to a minimum.
Trustee Stephanie Thompson said that as a parent, she has been having conversations with her kids to prepare them for what the new school year will look like. She suggested that other parents do the same.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, Jelaco read feedback on the start of school from two parents, one grandparent and a staff member.
One parent said that while she is thankful for the opportunity to do virtual instruction and thus keep her family safer, she is concerned about teachers, staff and students who will be returning to school. She took issue with the fact that the board continues to meet virtually while expecting district staff to return to crowded schools and hallways.
In response, Jelaco said it’s important to keep in mind that the rules that govern public meetings are different from Gov. Mark Gordon’s rules regarding schools.
Superintendent Kelly McGovern noted that the board is required to follow the orders for public meetings and does not have much flexibility. Jelaco also pointed out the board was allowed to meet virtually even before the coronavirus pandemic.
At the same time, however, Jelaco said she and McGovern have been talking about some options, and will continue to explore them moving forward to address this concern.
“We see this is a concern ourselves, so we want to be modeling what the expectations are, and we feel this is a place to start,” Jelaco said.
Another parent recommended letting students wear hats in school, so they can use face shields that fit onto standard baseball caps. She said it would be a more comfortable option, especially for kids who wear glasses.
McGovern said that in following the state’s orders, the district’s first priority is for everyone to wear a mask. However, the latest orders have made provision for times when face coverings could interfere with educational activities. That’s where the possibility of a face shield could come in, McGovern said.
The superintendent encouraged parents with questions to contact their school principal and visit with them about the situation that they have.
A staff member also submitted a comment expressing appreciation to Sweetwater No. 1 for being supportive and working with staff members who have health issues and are considered high risk. She said accommodations provided by the district illustrate compassion and demonstrate concern for the well being of employees. She said in her case, support was provided at both the district and school level.
The board also received a budget update on federal CARES Act and GEERS Act funding available to the district totaling nearly $2 million. Chief Financial Officer Scot Duncan told board members about three grants.
A $1.6 million CARES Act grant has been awarded to Sweetwater District No. 1 through the state of Wyoming. This grant offers flexibility for purchasing supplies and equipment related to the coronavirus, Duncan said. An approved Federal CARES relief grant in the amount of $284,500 is restricted to use swivel for mainly nutrition services equipment and technology needs. That grant will be used first, since funds must be spent before the end of the year. Approval is pending for a federal GEERS grant for $35,459.78 to be used for Swivl cameras for remote learning.