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COVID-19: Delivering Digital Education to Wyoming Students During the Outbreak

The COVID-19 outbreak has caused unprecedented disruption to education systems around the world. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has tracked the impact of the pandemic and estimates that, globally, 91 percent of the world’s student population has been impacted by school closures. 188 countries have instituted national closures, whereas the U.S. has implemented a policy of localized school closures left to the discretion of state officials. These closures have affected over 1.5 billion learners across the globe (UNESCO).

In the state of Wyoming, Governor Gordon has worked closely with State Epidemiologist and Health Official Dr. Alexia Harrist MD, Ph.D., and the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Jillian Balow, in determining an appropriate policy response to the pandemic in Wyoming. The Governor and Superintendent issued the recommendation that all Wyoming schools be closed on March 15th, affecting over 91,000 K-12 students across the state (Wyoming Dept. of Education). These closures have been extended until the end of April, at which time the Governor and the Superintendent will reevaluate the pandemic situation in the state to determine if and when schools will reopen. On March 27th, Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow ordered districts to have developed and submitted an Adapted Learning Plan for distance education to her office for approval. Balow noted that while “school doors may be closed to students, Wyoming education is open for business.” Districts responded accordingly, and prior to the April 6th deadline, all districts had submitted and approved their Adapted Learning Plans.

District plans have varied in their approaches, with some utilizing strictly synchronous learning or learning plans where all participants are present at the same time utilizing online educational platforms such as Google Classroom or Canvas, while others have embraced a blended learning approach. The blended learning approach continues to utilize synchronous learning while also implementing educational strategies such as packets that students are required to complete, the use of message boards, e-mail, audio recordings, and pre-recorded video. As districts across the state begin to implement these new adaptive learning plans, educators, students, and families question how effective it will be: how will access be achieved? How equitable will remote education be?

While the unique endeavor of statewide remote education presents a myriad of questions, districts, the Wyoming Education Association, and state officials are collaborating to ensure that students continue to receive a high-quality education. While districts and educators work diligently to design and implement lesson plans for these new circumstances, an undertaking the likes of which have never been attempted in the history of modern U.S. education, it’s critical that students continue learning, even in the face of physical school closures.

There has been a significant amount of research demonstrating the impacts of what is commonly known as “summer slide” a fluctuation in student achievement in which “students at the start of an academic year, start the year with achievement levels lower than where they were at the beginning of summer break” (Brookings Institute). Low-income children, black and Latino students, and students in higher grade levels are impacted most significantly. While the education students will be receiving differs from their experience in a traditional classroom, the value and importance of education must not be lost during these trying and unprecedented times.

Equitable access to digital learning resources for all students poses a concern in remote education service provision. The Coronavirus Aid Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) which was signed into law at the end of last month attempts to resolve some of the issues of the “digital divide,” or the gap between those who have access to computers and the internet and those who don’t. People typically lacking access are low-income families and families who live in rural areas of the country. Imbedded in the CARES Act is the Education Stabilization Fund, which allocates $30.75 billion to states to support K-12 and higher education, including monies available in formula-grants to states which are to be utilized to purchase education technology to support online learning (Benton Institute). This includes assisting students and families in acquiring the necessary technology, including laptops and internet access, for remote education.

Equity in education poses yet another potential issue to successful digital learning. Equitable access to high-quality education in the state of Wyoming is a constitutional right guaranteed to all students. Districts are constitutionally mandated to provide an equitable education to all students, including those populations who are typically more disadvantaged including students with disabilities, English as a Second Language Learners (ESL), homeless and migrants students, students who are academically behind their peers, black, Latinx, and Native American students, as well as those living in poverty (Forbes). Universal Design for Learning (UDL) may help to answer some education equity issues. Universal Design for Learning is a teaching approach that works to accommodate the needs and abilities of all learners (Cornell University Center for Teaching Innovation). Education via UDL functions if the principles of equity, flexibility, simple and intuitive use, perceptible information, and tolerance for error are adhered to.

While the future is uncertain in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, students and families across the state can rest a little easier knowing that educators, administrators, education support professionals, and all staff are doing everything they can in a collaborative effort to ensure that students, staff, teachers, and families remain safe and impart the high-quality education that’s become a Wyoming tradition.

Even as we venture into this uncharted educational territory, it’s important to note that continuing education in the face of national and global emergencies is not a new concept. Education systems have had to adapt during emergencies, such as the aftermath of natural disasters, armed conflict, or even other epidemics (Brookings Institute). Time will tell what the COVID-19 pandemic teaches us about priorities and preparedness for education systems across the globe. Policies must be developed, and the nature of some of our systems will inevitably be reexamined.

The Wyoming Education Association is confident that, because of the diligence and tenacity of the state’s devoted education workforce, the state’s education system and Wyoming students will continue to thrive.

The WEA would like to extend our heartfelt gratitude to those who have made our education system great, and who continue to do so in the face of this outbreak. Thank you.

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