As schools reopen, teachers shoulder weight of pandemic’s myriad challenges

In mid-March, public schools, the most far-reaching institution in Wyoming, closed down in a matter of hours. Students and staff went home on Friday the 13th and never came back. The coronavirus had founds its way into the Equality State, and state officials took sweeping measures to limit its spread. Now, five and a half months later, schools are reopening. But the virus hasn’t slowed, and unlike natural disasters or even school shootings, there’s been no way to drill for a pandemic that at times has overwhelmed and altered every facet of daily life. Still, unprecedented pandemic or not, students are returning to schools all over Wyoming, save for the Wind River Reservation. Partitions have been erected, bemasked students and staff file off of buses and into classrooms, and nearly 1,000 students in Natrona County alone have signed up for virtual learning. Tasked with this experiment are thousands of teachers, principals, paraprofessionals, custodians, cafeteria workers and administrators. They will educate. They will clean. They will care for each other and for more than 90,000 students and, by extension, their parents, their siblings, their grandparents. The state has issued guidelines for as-safe-as-possible reopenings, and districts have filled in the gaps. But uncertainty remains. In speaking with more than 10 educators from Natrona County and across the state, there is joy in seeing students again, and there is anxiety about everything else: Will they get sick, will everyone follow the rules, will those rules be effective? But above all, there is this dichotomy: On the one hand, the knowledge that students benefit immeasurably by being in school. On the other, the complete lack of knowledge about what will come next. Already, there have been coronavirus cases in at least two K-12 institutions in Wyoming within days of their reopening. “We don’t have — there is no 100% right answer in any of this, which hurts, and is very hard because you would think going back to school is the most normal thing in the world,” said one Natrona County educator who, like several others, agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. “It’s not normal. It’s not even close to normal.” From shop teachers in Greybull to part-timers in Casper, there was universal agreement that students needed to be back. For those educators who double as parents, they saw firsthand this spring that online learning, thrown together virtually overnight, was a mess. But they all said they were anxious — even among those who had already started classes and who felt better now than they had before. Some were angry about their districts’ plans. “Yeah, we got partitions and masks and we have our social distancing,” another Natrona County teacher said. “But it just kind of feels like everybody’s pretending we’re not in the middle of a global pandemic and we’re just gonna have school with some extra accessories.”

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