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Wyoming Schools Chief on the Coronavirus Challenge

As families, educators, and community leaders wrestle with COVID-19, we'll be trying to bring conversations to readers that will be helpful in confronting the challenge.

Jillian Balow, the state superintendent of public instruction in Wyoming, oversees the state's 48 districts and 90,000 students. She is also president of the board of directors for the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). I reached out to Jillian to see how she's dealing with the coronavirus, and if she has any advice to share. Here's what she had to say.

Rick: How is the coronavirus playing out in more rural environments like Wyoming? What's the right way to understand the particular challenges that a rural context presents for districts and schools?

Jillian: Rural school districts have a few advantages—as long as good leaders and excellent teachers are in place. First, the heart of a small community is often the school, so there's a natural infrastructure for outreach. Within one day of announcing school closures last month, every school district in Wyoming was delivering meals to every student who needed one. That morphed into adding learning-packet drop-off and pickup, along with meal delivery. In small communities, the teachers know their students, families, and neighbors. This all makes it tougher for students, even the most at risk, to slip through the cracks.

Many small school districts achieved a 1:1 student-to-technology-device ratio before school closures—if only we had known how important this would become. Devices for every student, a statewide learning-management system, a solid broadband infrastructure, and tech-savvy teachers have made a shift to distance learning much easier for us. Of course, that's not the scenario for every district—and I won't sugarcoat this. Many of our small communities are overwhelmed by COVID-19. Health and safety takes priority over school, and it's been devastating in Washington state. Most of our small communities only have a clinic with doctors and often share it with nearby communities. A lack of access to health care and facilities is a tremendous stressor for many of our families.

Rick: What's the biggest challenge that your superintendents are dealing with right now? And how are they handling it?

Jillian: Inside of two weeks, I asked every school district to develop a plan that rewrites education as we know it for the rest of the school year. Talk about reform! Essential learnings, assessments, teaching assignments, Professional Learning Communities, or PLCs, accountability—all upended. Almost everything we've come to value in the education system has been ditched, replaced, or repurposed. Notice, I said almost everything, but not everyone. We have great education leaders supporting dedicated teachers who truly miss their students and their profession.

Rick: How have Wyoming districts been handling the coronavirus crisis?

Jillian: Health and safety have to be our first priority. In communities most devastated by COVID-19, academic achievement is pretty far down on the priority list—this is the reality. We feed kids, we mitigate the virus, we connect with students to check on their well-being, we hope to provide learning activities. Our "high stakes" education system is on the honor system for now, and it's really different. COVID-19 has forced us to look at our assessment and accountability system and adjust it to meet student needs—something we should have done a long time ago. Right now, we have no business telling our students that anything is more "high stakes" than their well-being. The stakes here are plain to see: Reports of neglect and abuse have dropped off nationwide, but that's not because kids are safer or abuse has stopped. Education and child protection have to work more closely to ensure this kind of gap in what's happening and what's reported is never, ever created again.

Rick: Where are your schools and districts at in terms of school closures? Have you set out a timeline for getting kids back in the buildings?

Jillian: School doors are closed across our state, but education is open for business. With over 90,000 square miles, it's possible that some schools may reopen to some students this school year. Wyoming's Gov. Mark Gordon, our state's health officer, and I work closely with each other and make decisions together. 

Rick: Where are you at with distance learning? What is currently going on? And what are your plans for rolling out more comprehensive online education going forward?

Jillian: We opted for the term "adapted learning" because it's an unfamiliar term for unfamiliar times. It's a mix of virtual learning and traditional paper and pencil learning (just not in a school building). What's crazy is that we've put some good infrastructure in place to support this. A few years ago, legislation that would have funded a statewide Learning Management System (LMS) for kindergarten  through higher ed. failed. In partnership with our community colleges, we moved forward anyway. We cobbled funds, forged partnerships, and stood up an LMS in Wyoming that is accessible to all K-12 schools and all higher education institutions. Additionally, for the last decade, Wyoming has been dedicated to building out reliable broadband access. And, like others, we have great educators who bring learning to life for students regardless of the delivery method.

Rick: What are the particular challenges with distance learning in a geographically disperse state?

Jillian: We have a fair number of rural families who live "off the grid" and don't want internet access. It's been interesting to connect with these families while practicing social distancing. Nonetheless, our educators have provided students and families with phones and learning packets. 

Rick: What's going to happen with the federal aid coming in? How will it be allocated? And what will it be used for?

Jillian: Most states, including Wyoming, have a task force or some other mechanism to review and make recommendations for CARES Act education stabilization funding. The spending authority is broad, but the guidance from the United States Department of Education is clear: mitigate, recover, build an infrastructure to support future pandemics, and return to business better than before. State chiefs are committed to doing just that. Frankly, education will be better because of this experience, the lessons learned, and the fiscal support to reach goals.

Rick: What's one concrete thing that you've seen a school or teacher doing that you've found reassuring and heartening?

Jillian: Just the other day, I presented virtually to a student group that formed after school closures. They call themselves Youth Connect. They were engaged and asked great questions for over an hour. I'm so grateful that, for the most part, this generation is comfortable with technology and is adapting well during this time. This crazy experience is reshaping all of us, and I believe it will make the next generation more resilient, more patient, and more hopeful.

And beyond that, the camaraderie and partnerships being forged across the state have been almost overwhelming to watch. From formal pairing of districts in order to better leverage resources to teachers sharing lessons learned, we are seeing educators step up in remarkable ways and leap over barriers to connect with their students. In this time of uncertainty, schools have remained a steady source of support for families.

This post has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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