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One week down: Campbell County returns to the school amid COVID-19

After the Campbell County School District announced its reopening plan July 15, questions remained about what the school year would look like for stakeholders of all sorts — students, parents, teachers, administrators and anyone else connected to the district.

Those questions were answered last week as district schools completed their first week of the 2020-21 academic year, and they did so in person, in classrooms for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic caused the closure of schools in March. Nothing is considered set in stone just yet, but students and parents and teachers have a better idea now about what a profoundly different (or weird, as some would say) school year will look like.

Students are the main focus, because it’s for their benefit that so much work went into developing a plan that would allow for instruction to happen in classrooms. For the most part, the overwhelming response from students has been excitement at a return to some sense of normalcy. A five-month layoff from their friends and the routine a school day provides seems to have erased any sense of dread about returning to school or sorrow over the ending of summer.

Aimee Baysinger, 10, is a fifth grader at Rawhide Elementary, and she’s loving her time as a fifth grader so far.

“It’s just like a regular day of school, except with the masks and the shield guards,” Baysinger said.

Aidyn Huddleston, 12, is a seventh grader at Twin Spruce Junior High who said he’s gotten the hang of junior high school pretty well in the first week; he didn’t get lost once.

“Actually, all of my teachers have been really cool,” Huddleston said. “Football has been fun. I’ve pretty much gotten all the stuff down and remembering all my classes and everything.”

Emily Alvarado, a senior at Campbell County High School, led with the strangeness of it all.

“There’s just a weird vibe,” Alvarado said, describing alterations to a normal classroom experience.

“We have to cut class time three to five minutes shorter so we can sanitize our own seatings and stuff,” she said. “I think sometimes we aren’t paying attention to the clock, so most teachers have timers and when they go off, we have to sanitize and stuff. We can’t sit back down.”

All of the students made reference to a new requirement that provides perhaps the biggest question mark as the school year approached: face coverings. But surprisingly, there wasn’t a lot of negativity in their descriptions of face masks and their effect on being back in class. Most students said they didn’t mind the masks so much. When they considered whether they’d seen many disruptions in classrooms because of students not cooperating with the mask requirement, they said it hasn’t been an issue.

That’s not to say there wasn’t any pushback on the mask policy in the first week.

Teri Webb, the mother of a CCHS junior, was not pleased with the school’s treatment of her son after he was held in the office for multiple periods because he didn’t want to wear a face mask. Her complaints were wide-ranging, including, among other things, that she said she wasn’t contacted by the school while her son was being held in isolation in a conference room, that she felt her son was targeted the next day at school when he was confronted by the administration for again not wearing a mask and that the school required a note justifying a face-mask exception to come from a doctor and not simply a parent. She also said another of her children complained about feeling sick from wearing the face masks during the day.

At the root of her displeasure is a fundamental disagreement about both the severity of COVID-19 and the efficacy of face masks. She described social distancing as “stupid.”

“The masks are literally, in my own opinion and the opinion of those I know and love, it is literally to see who is going to comply,” Webb said. “The masks don’t do a damn thing.”

Mainly she said her problem was about how her student was treated, as she felt it was unfair and akin to bullying.

Chad Bourgeois, CCHS principal, did not comment on the specifics of Webb’s son or her complaint, but said that in general, the process for when a student doesn’t want to comply with the face covering mandate is fairly cut-and-dried.

“I just have a conversation with the kid, and I give them a chance to share their thoughts and perspectives and then I just reiterate the rationale for the face coverings at school is very specific, in that we’re required to follow an order from the governor’s office and that’s what we’re doing,” Bourgeois said. “For anyone who feels like that can’t work out for them, they’ve got the opportunity to use online learning, as well as getting a doctor’s note, and we’ll certainly honor that.

“So it’s a pretty short conversation, honestly. There’s really not much open for debate there.”

Webb said she considered the online option and would leave the decision to her children “to a point.”

“If my children continue to tell me they’re having a hard time breathing or that they feel sick, then I will remove the decision from them because their health and their well-being is my ultimate responsibility as their parent,” Webb said.

If she were to decide to do online instruction, Webb said she wouldn’t keep her children in the district.

Bourgeois said that conversations with students over mask disputes have been rare, but that students are curious about how long they can expect to attend school with face masks.

“I’ve had plenty of kids ask, ‘How long do you think we’ll have to do this?’ and without giving false hope, I always try to portray optimism and say, ‘You know what? If we’re all consistent together, we’ll get through this sooner rather than later, so we just need everyone to toe the line and do their part,’” Bourgeois said. “We can stay in school, we can have activities and hopefully we can get to Thanksgiving, and we can be high-fiving each other again instead of air-high-fiving each other.”

Parents of all stripes have adjusted to the strange new world alongside their kids.

Jessica Baysinger, Aimee’s mother, was thrilled by how excited her daughter was to be back in school.

“No complaints, but one thing surprised me a little,” Jessica said. “Aimee forgot her water bottle, and she wasn’t allowed to get water all day.”

Like many public spaces, the schools have turned off their water fountains to minimize the chance for germs to spread. Many of the district’s schools included a personal reusable water bottle on their school supply lists this year.

Jessica said she was surprised that the schools didn’t have bottles of water available for just such an occasion, but they learned a valuable lesson and will make sure going forward that Aimee has her water bottle every day.

Teachers also adapt

Teachers also are facing a world that many of them couldn’t have imagined when they chose their profession.

This year saw them tasked with being a first line of defense as they check temperatures and monitor for symptoms of COVID-19, which can be almost anything, and they’ve seen their workloads increase as they’re responsible for maintaining the basic safety of their classrooms. This time is more than keeping them safe from long-standing threats of violence in schools, but also now from microbes that have the power to devastate the body and shut down entire economies.

For some, like CCHS band director Steve Oakley, you’d expect the changes to be difficult to enforce. After all, who wants to monitor the up-down, up-down of face masks for a group of dozens of brass and woodwind players practicing indoors?

But Oakley said that he’s mainly been surprised by how smoothly it’s gone after just a week of students getting used to it.

“The kids have accepted it, and I honestly haven’t had to re-mention it since (the first day),” Oakley said. “It just shows how important the school setting is to the students. They know what’s on the line, and they’re doing everything they need to so they can continue to be in school.”

In fact, things might even be better than Oakley had expected in some ways. In the first week of school alone, 11 new students joined the band.

For other teachers, the newness of COVID-19 protocols took a backseat to the newness of teaching for the first time.

Meghan DuPuis, a first-year English teacher at Westwood High School, was blown away at the extent to which her students let her get to know them.

“I literally get to set aside part of my day just to talk to my students,” DuPuis said. “They’re so much fun.”

She also said she was still adjusting to managing her workload, which includes being a graduate student herself, and her personal life, which includes seeing her family and preparing meals. She said numerous teacher friends checked on her throughout the week, and she marveled to them that she didn’t really know just how much they worked until she lived it herself.

So far, so good

Building principals have taken the skeleton that was the district’s reopening plan and put some meat on those bones by overseeing building-specific reentry plans. Principals Terry Quinn of Thunder Basin High School and Bourgeois at CCHS are in charge of the two largest student populations in the district. Despite their large numbers, they both had surprisingly rosy reports from their first weeks.

“I’m most delighted with the level of enthusiasm and the sense of empathy by kids who care for each other and care for staff in regards to cooperate with the guidelines set down by the governor and public health,” Quinn said. “I’m just tickled pink, just happy and surprised that they’re all following the guidelines because they know they’re working together to keep the school open.”

Bourgeois was likewise praiseworthy of his staff and students.

“It’s fun to talk with kids and hear them say, ‘Mr. B., I just want to be back in school. I’m glad we’re here. I’ll wear a mask; I don’t care. I’m just glad to be back.’ Because that’s how we all feel,” Bourgeois said.

Despite the good cheer and can-do attitude of students and faculty, there have still been hiccups along the way.

Bryan Young, director of Nutrition Services, described a first week that proved more difficult than he expected even though his staff worked all throughout the summer providing meals for students after the shutdown went into effect.

“What we served in the summer, everything was cold,” Young said. “We would give families instructions on heating stuff up, but now, we want to be able to serve hot food.”

Young described how cooking the food at the district’s central kitchen, located at CCHS, and delivering it or cooking portions on-site, as well as a relatively tight delivery window, has added levels of complication that weren’t seen over the summer.

“It’s not a finished product,” Young said of the food delivery process. “I know we can get better and want to get better because I know my staff truly cares about the kids in our schools. We want to put out the best product that we can.”

Another district-level logistical challenge was transportation.

Keith Chrans, the district’s transportation supervisor, knew he had his work cut out for him, but so much of the planning couldn’t be done until the last minute after his department had heard from all the families wanting transportation services for their students. The larger the number, the more difficult Chrans’s job would be, as social distancing orders made things more complicated.

“We ended up with a ridership of between 3,500-4,000,” Chrans said. This level of ridership is close to a typical year’s numbers, so Chrans’s department had to make some adjustments.

“We had to adjust about six routes from one stop to another to keep the number below the 50,” he said about the number students per route. “At this point in time, we’re planning on adding three routes, and we’re building those right now because we know as winter gets here, we have more ridership, so we know they’ll be over 50.”

Chrans said he was pleased with the addition of only three new routes because he was worried the number could be as high as 10-12 new routes needed.

“Out of 115 routes, I think I counted 10 that are able to maintain distance,” Chrans said. “The other 105 are having to wear masks.”

Any bus route that has more than 12 students is required to wear face masks, he said. If certain routes can be kept around 25 students, he said the transportation department would ask public health if those routes could use plastic shields instead of face masks, but the total number of riders is still in flux so it will take some time before Chrans knows what all routes will look like.

The biggest challenge for transportation was a last-minute request from school buildings to have students arrive as closely as possible to the morning’s first bell to reduce the amount of time they could congregate in large groups without being in a classroom.

“During our in-service with our drivers, we said, ‘We need your help because we can’t make all these changes; you’ll have to do it as you talk to parents and kind of on the fly,’” Chrans said. “Our staff has done that, and I’m in absolute amazement at how they can do that because it’s not just one route, it’s actually two different routes they have to adjust.”

Chrans also couldn’t praise his dispatch staff highly enough.

“The office normally would have July and August to prepare, but this year because summer school didn’t happen until late July, that’s what really threw everything into a time crunch. They really went over and above to get this thing done and work with the drivers in the two-week time period.”

Zooming out to a 35,000-foot view, Superintendent Alex Ayers and Deputy Superintendent Kirby Eisenhauer were both excited to have a week under their belts.

“Each day that we have with those students is going to make it that much better if we do have to get into a situation where a building is closed or a wing of a school, because those relationships will be much stronger the longer we are with those students,” Eisenhauer said.

“I heard that students were great from square one and were really able to focus on the start of the year in terms of getting organized and the learning process beginning, and so we’re really thankful to our families and their children for letting us get off to a great start,” Ayers said.

NTEC lays off 80 previously furloughed Antelope mine workers

When he got the call Thursday, Aaron McAllister was hopeful he’d be going back to work nearly three months after being furloughed from the Antelope coal mine.

Instead, he got his severance package with the news that furloughs for himself and 79 other coal mine workers are now permanent layoffs.

“I had hopes we were actually going to go back to work today,” McAllister said Friday. “We were hopeful, because there’s nothing to lose, so you might as well be (optimistic).”

He and his girlfriend both worked at the mine located south of Wright in Campbell County and were both among 93 hourly Antelope employees who were furloughed May 21, along with the layoff of eight salaried employees.

Friday morning, the previously furloughed Antelope mine coal workers were officially laid off.

In the months since they were furloughed, mine owner Navajo Transitional Energy Co. reports that some of those workers have retired or moved on to other jobs, which puts the total layoffs at 80.

Although the company wanted to find a way to bring the furloughed workers back, the company doesn’t anticipate business picking up anytime soon, according to an NTEC statement about the layoffs.

“As we continue to evaluate markets amidst the coronavirus and economic recovery, we do not anticipate an increase in orders from our Antelope mine through the end of the year,” the statement says. “Based on this information, we have moved the previous furloughed employees to a laid-off status.”

The company also acknowledged it’s a blow for the workers who had held out hope to eventually return to their jobs.

“While we regret the hardship this causes, we want to be transparent with our employees and give them every opportunity to move forward and do what is best for them and their families,” according to the statement.

The layoffs also don’t preclude the potential for rehiring people if business picks up, NTEC said. “We will monitor conditions and rehire as the opportunity arises.”

The layoffs bring the overall loss of Wyoming Powder River Basin coal jobs this year to nearly 570, a drop of more than 12% from the 4,578 full-time employees the mines reported at the end of 2019, according to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Conversely, coal production in the basin is on pace to produce 24% less coal this year. At the Antelope mine, the 9.8 million tons produced in the first quarter of 2020 puts it on pace to ship about 16% less coal than the 23.3 million tons it did in 2019.

McAllister had been at the Antelope mine since 2010. His girlfriend also had worked there for nearly a year. While disappointed with the move, he said the company gave everyone a personalized severance package and was a great place to work.

“I understand financially why they’re doing what they have to do,” he said.

McAllister also said he has no hard feelings toward NTEC or Cloud Peak Energy, the mine’s former owner. NTEC bought Cloud Peak Energy’s Powder River Basin assets in a bankruptcy sale last year.

“Cloud Peak Energy had been a blessing for me my whole life,” he said. “They offered opportunities for me I never would’ve had. I liked working for NTEC, too. If things were different, they would’ve been there for all their employees.

“It has been an amazing outfit to work for.”

Thunder Basin High School students go wild as the Bolts pull ahead late in the game before eventually winning 34-28 over Cheyenne East Friday evening in Gillette.

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Three candidates file for three upcoming hospital board vacancies
Trio files on last day to come in under deadline

Randy Hite, Kristina Leslie and Tom Murphy all filed to become Campbell County Health Board of Trustees candidates before last week’s deadline, making all three eligible to join the hospital board in this November’s election.

The candidates are running for three board seats that will be vacated at the end of this term. Seats for Trustees Dustin Martinson, Ronda Boller and Chairman Dr. Ian Swift are all expiring, making the three new candidates vying for them an uncontested race.

No one had filed to run for the board vacancies until Aug. 24, the day of the deadline when all three candidates applied.

Each of the candidates bring either a history of public service or personal experience in the health care field.

Hite brings both. After serving on the hospital board of trustees since 2012, Hite resigned in August 2019 for personal reasons, but now wants to rejoin in the upcoming term. He is a physical therapist with Gillette Physical Therapy who, in his seven years as a board trustee, spent two years as chairman.

Leslie was in consideration when the board looked to fill Hite’s vacancy in late 2019, but ultimately was not selected when Martinson was appointed instead.

She is the Campbell County School District’s board-certified behavioral health analyst. She has a master’s degree in clinical psychology and a doctorate degree in clinical health.

“I feel like my knowledge base in behavioral health and integrated care could be an asset,” Leslie said.

As a behavioral health specialist and local resident, Leslie said that she sees potential for a more integrated health care approach, where behavioral health and primary care are more combined than separate, with communication between medical care specialties improved as a whole.

“I think the hospital does a great job in serving our community,” Leslie said. “I just think there are a lot of things moving in the preventive and proactive directions, and how amazing would it be for us to be ahead of the curve?”

The final candidate, Murphy, is a former Gillette mayor who also served on the City Council for six years. Most recently, he lost in the August Republican primary election when he ran for the state House of Representatives District 53 seat against incumbent Rep. Roy Edwards.

At 62, Murphy carries the perspective of a health care outsider. Still, with his years of experience on the City Council and working with large-scale budgets for international corporations, he said that he is well-versed in economics and will bring a watchful eye to the hospital’s budget, looking for ways to cut expenses.

“I know where you can cut costs and be more efficient. And I know it can be done,” Murphy said. “We have to become more efficient at what we’re doing, we simply have to.”

Each hospital board position is a four-year term. The candidates, barring a strong push from write-in candidates, will all be voted onto the board in November.

“Northeast Wyoming needs the hospital that we have, we need that medical facility,” Murphy said.