CHEYENNE — Wyoming had the highest percentage of students enrolled in fully in-person learning of any state this past February.
That’s according to a new monthly survey from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. It gave states the option of participating in a survey to find out how many fourth and eighth graders were learning either entirely in person or through a hybrid of in-person and remote instruction.
According to the survey, 80 percent of public schools with fourth or eighth grades offered hybrid or in-person learning in February, but not everyone signed up for it; 57 percent of fourth graders across the country and 53 percent of eighth graders were learning either in person or through a hybrid model.
Those figures were much higher in Wyoming, where 94 percent of fourth graders and 81 percent of eighth graders were learning completely in person (8 percent of eighth graders were doing hybrid learning); 4 percent and 6 percent, respectively, were still learning remotely.
So, what has allowed Wyoming to keep its schools open at such a high rate during a pandemic that forced almost all schools to transition to remote learning this time last year?
Several different factors – including social distancing, wearing masks, and strong communication between state and local school and public health officials – State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle on Wednesday.
Although Wyoming is the nation’s least-populated state – some school districts here have fewer than 400 total students enrolled – Balow said the state’s low population density isn’t the main reason schools have stayed open.
“We were able to facilitate those partnerships (between local and state officials) better, and we see that in every area,” she said, comparing Wyoming to states with higher populations, where it takes longer to coordinate conversations about adapting to a pandemic, for instance. “We all know each other, so it was easier to stand up the partnerships and communications. But I don’t necessarily know that it made some of those difficult decisions any easier.”
Balow said that almost as soon as schools closed in-person learning last spring, the priority of education leaders across the state was figuring how to safely reopen. Balow’s office helped to assemble a panel of education leaders, health experts and parents who came up with guidance on how to make it happen this school year.
“Those were conversations we started having in March (2020). I don’t think that is typical across the nation,” she said. “What I asked the panel to consider was how do we consider our school operations, our transitions, health and safety protocols and sports. And we really got a leg up compared to the rest of the nation, and we were ready to start school in September.”
Although some of the safety protocols that have been in place in school this year – especially a statewide mask mandate when social distancing is not possible that’s still in effect for public schools – have fueled heated controversy across the state, including in Cheyenne, masks have played a role in keeping schools open for in-person instruction.
“We knew early on that masks weren’t the silver bullet to preventing the spread of COVID-19, but they’re certainly one way,” Balow said, pointing to masks in combination of social distancing, sanitization and health screenings as effective tools for containing the spread of the virus.
“Masks are an important part of the equation,” said Dr. Alexia Harrist, Wyoming’s state health officer. “Not every school can separate students (with) six feet of distance, and wearing masks made that situation a lot safer, even when those distances were smaller than six feet.”
Under current health guidelines, students who are wearing masks when exposed to an infected individual do not have to quarantine, which has allowed more students to stay in school despite an ebb and flow of COVID-19 cases throughout the school year.
“We really did try to be as reasonable as possible in requiring masks only in areas where six feet of distance could not be maintained,” Harrist said of the guidelines the health department has put in place.
“We saw early on that if students were wearing masks, we essentially did not see transmission in those settings. Whereas we know from the data and studies that students are certainly at risk for getting COVID-19 and spreading it in situations where masks aren’t being used.”