The halls of Twin Spruce Junior High resonated with a hustle and bustle not seen there since March.
It was less than a week until the official start of school, and newly minted seventh graders (and their dutiful parents) were on campus to explore the school. They found their classrooms and lockers and discovered the shortest distance between them.
A similar scene was happening across town at Sage Valley Junior High.
More than 350 incoming seventh graders are enrolled at each of the schools and will start a new stage of their young lives Monday.
Before the students and parents can reach those halls, they passed a station of tables with color-coded forms and papers where Twin Spruce staffers handed out schedules and answered questions.
A group of four (two students, two mothers) took their forms and as they were about to walk away, one of the parents thinks to ask about face masks. The staffer told her that yes, face masks are to be worn when social distancing can’t be maintained. The parent ran back to the car to retrieve masks before they started exploring the school building.
Such is the reality of starting public school in 2020.
The foursome’s two students, Taylor Ellison, 12, and Haevyn Fullenwider, 13, made their lockers the first stop on their tour of the new building.
Fullenwider found her locker first, and after searching down the hall, Ellison noticed hers was almost directly across the hallway from her friend. She called out to register their proximity and Fullenwider gave a quick wave, as if they hadn’t walked into the building together.
The girls fiddled with their lockers with an unfamiliarity at first; they just hadn’t practiced the movements enough, each turn made deliberately like a bomb technician defusing an explosive. There was no practiced nonchalance about the act, no talking over their shoulders while they worked. It took their complete attention. It was their tell, their giveaway.
They’re new here.
Ellison arrived at Twin Spruce from Lakeview Elementary and Fullenwider from Hillcrest Elementary. They bounded up stairwells with knees high, a youthful and nervous energy animating their eyes above their masks. They seemed to take in everything and nothing all at the same time.
They scrutinized the half sheet of paper, their schedules, that held their futures for the next semester like those who are lost scrutinize a map — quick glances down, then up at the closest door or down a hall, seeking a familiar landmark.
Where’s science class? Oh, we already passed it? Where are the lockers from here?
Concerns normal to seventh graders occupied their thoughts. One of the mothers asked, “So, what is the scary part of coming here?” They both erupt in a flurry of thoughts and opinions, talking over each other. But the phrases, “going all over the building” and “remembering all your classes” were clear.
At one point upon entering a hall, one of the girls noted they would have to pass eighth graders here.
It was said with a tone of mild dread, Ellison said, “because they’re eighth graders.”
It was as simple and as complicated as that. But if they were lost, they both said they might be brave enough to ask an eighth grader for directions.
“It depends on the eighth grader,” Fullenwider said.
“It depends on the eighth grader,” said Ellison a second later, like an echo in a canyon.
“Lunch is going to be scary, not having anyone to sit with,” Ellison added.
There’s a reason the lunchroom scene is a staple of nearly every movie or TV show set in a school. It’s the loneliness and feeling that one is in the spotlight while trying to decide where to sit. But the girls’ moms flip the fear and highlight lunch as a great place to meet new people.
Both girls said the pandemic has been scarier than all the other unknowns as they get ready for the year.
“You won’t be able to do as many things as you used to be, like you won’t be able to be right next to your friend walking down the hall talking, you won’t be able to sit with all your friends at lunch, you won’t be able to do a lot of things that you used to,” Ellison said.
They took advantage of the things they could do, though. Both were attempting to make the volleyball team and due back for the second day of tryouts that evening.
The lockers were a common place to find new students with their slight frustrations and small victories.
Anna Faldalen, 12, and her mother, Julie, made more than one stop at the lockers to make sure Anna had it figured out. There was a lot of shared laughter as Anna narrated each attempt.
Faldalen is looking forward to art and English classes, but the pandemic is on her mind as well.
“I’m actually kind of anxious about that, or worried, just because I won’t be starting middle school the way I wanted to, how it would originally be,” Faldalen said.
She said she was thinking of the social distancing requirements that might interfere with the way she’d normally interact with friends.
Her anxiety about socialization in a new school reiterated that there are layers of concerns that seventh grade students must confront, and COVID-19 is only the top layer. Make-or-break issues like new friends and determining where to sit in the cafeteria have long been sources of anxiety for students.
Faldalen, who’s coming from Conestoga Elementary, spoke about the long-standing issues with remarkable self-awareness.
“I’m kind of nervous to make new friends because I’ve always stuck with the same friends, which I kind of regret,” she said.
Then, quickly so as not to sound ungrateful for her good friends, she said, “Well, they’re good friends and all, but, you know, it might be hard for me to make new friends.”
She then rattled off the exact configuration of classes and lunch schedules she could expect to share with her friends, making it clear they had compared them with enough attention to detail to pinpoint exactly how much of each other they would see on any given school day.
She also looks forward to clubs and extracurricular activities that rely on schools being open. The newspaper club and the art club are on Faldalen’s list of contenders.
“If I had to choose between going back to school and doing it at home, like sitting in your bed all comfy, I’d actually choose school,” she said with an emphasis on the last word as if the revelation somewhat surprised even her.
Around another corner in the building was more exasperation at a locker.
Aidyn Huddleston, 12, failed to open his on his first two tries, and at one point, he threw his hands up in frustration and then simply leaned his forehead against the locker in temporary defeat.
But on his third try, it opened, and he gave a double thumbs-up to nobody in particular. Huddleston completed his elementary education at Conestoga and is looking forward to playing defensive line in football and cello in the orchestra at Twin Spruce.
Huddleston didn’t seem too worried about some of the larger changes that come along with junior high school, like changing classes instead of staying with the same teacher for all subjects.
“That’ll be kind of weird, like figuring out all the different teachers’ quirks and stuff,” he said.
He also didn’t mince words about the safety precautions required because of COVID-19, especially face masks.
“I hate them,” Huddleston said.
“‘I hate them,’” his mother, Wendi, mimicked with a laugh. “Spoken like a true 12-year-old.”
Though Huddleston may hate the masks, he wore his dutifully touring his new school. The mask, along with other restrictions and protocols, weighed on his mother’s mind. She recognized that there is a mixture of anxieties that would affect kids in normal times with the added complication of COVID-19 protocols and restrictions, and those additional complications are what she found herself thinking about most ahead of the school year.
“I’m excited for him to get to be around his peers again,” Wendi said. “Of course, I’m nervous because it’s his first year in junior high and a lot of changes and so many different restrictions in place along with those changes.
“Honestly, I would rather see him do online schooling.”
The possibility of a coronavirus outbreak is real, as she noted from the news of school openings in other parts of the country.
“It is scary,” Wendi said. “I pray that we don’t end up like we see a lot of the schools on the news, under quarantine for two weeks after we start, so I’m glad to see that Campbell County is taking precautions.”
She is cautiously optimistic about the steps that the district and individual schools are taking, especially with respect to the specific realities in Campbell County.
“I think if we were in a bigger place, we’d have to take bigger precautions,” she said. “But I think we’re isolated to some extent, so I feel grateful for that.”
Kimberly Quintana compared moving to Laramie to driving to Disney World during a thunderstorm.
Like many in the high school Class of 2020, Quintana has lost a lot in the last six months because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The new Campbell County High School graduate lost her senior prom. She lost the spring track season. She lost having a housing assignment with her first college roommate.
Now, the incoming University of Wyoming freshman fears she’ll lose her first year of college entirely.
“Am I really going to waste my time even going there? Do I just use a gap year?” Quintana asked rhetorically about starting classes on campus this month. “It’s so difficult and I’ve been so stressed about making the right decision.
“There’s just that factor of moving down to Laramie and having to immediately come back home.”
Quintana is referring to UW’s constantly evolving re-opening plan that has delayed the start of the fall semester.
In-person instruction has been backed up until Sept. 25 for most of the classes on the Laramie campus. This has been an emotional blow for many students hoping to begin a traditional college experience.
In 2019, 320 students from Campbell County were enrolled at UW’s Laramie campus. Four students attended UW-Casper and 84 attended UW through distance programs said Chad Baldwin, director of institutional communication.
Like Quintana, Dakota Jones has always wanted to experience life as a Cowboy.
Choosing her home state’s university was a “no-brainer” when the CCHS graduate and Class of 2020 salutatorian received a full-ride scholarship.
Jones was supposed to be moved into her new dorm room in Laramie by now. Instead, she won’t be moving in until Labor Day weekend.
“It’s been pretty stressful for me. I’m the type of person to stress constantly anyways and this definitely hasn’t helped,” Jones said. “I’m going into a completely different part of my life that I have no experience in. I don’t know what college is even supposed to be like.”
Jones, who plans to study kinesiology, doesn’t exactly know what to expect for her first college semester.
“It’s going to be weird and a lot of teachers are not really going to be sure what’s going on. Just like the students,” Jones said. “I’ve just been looking forward to this college experience for a really long time.”
This past week, the Laramie Boomerang reported 38 active COVID-19 cases at UW. One of the positive tests was a student living in Gillette.
There have been 50 UW-related cases since the start of the pandemic. Any student or staff member returning to campus for the fall semester must test negative for COVID-19.
The university has set aside 51 quarantine beds for students who test positive for COVID-19 while living on campus, the newspaper reported. If the beds reach 80% occupancy, UW will stop face-to-face instruction.
The Mountain West Conference, which includes UW, canceled all fall sports Aug. 10.
Prepare for the unknown
Chris Richter, who graduated as a salutatorian from Thunder Basin High School this summer, moved to Laramie as a freshman early Wednesday morning. Richter is excited and “pretty prepared” for what he may experience for his first year of college.
The college has mostly communicated with students through email, but Richter can also access updated information online. He’s excited to get back to face-to-face learning after his first month of classes are held online.
It feels strange moving to campus just to start his classes virtually, but it will help him adjust to living in Laramie, Richter said.
“It’s definitely weird,” he said. “I guess it just gives me some more time to get used to the city, so it is kind of nice.”
Richter, who earned a full-ride academic scholarship and wants to study mathematics, doesn’t plan on staying locked up in his dorm room the whole time.
“I don’t plan on staying in a ton. I’ll do my schoolwork in my room, but I don’t want to just stay in there,” Richter said. “I have a friend already living (in Laramie) and I plan on going to the (St. Paul’s) Newman Center quite a bit.”
The Newman Center is a Catholic church on the UW campus.
Jones said she’ll also go out of her way to meet new people because it’s all part of the college experience.
“I’m not a very social person and I need to be going into college,” Jones said. “The school has connected us with other freshmen online and I’ll probably meet up with some of them because we’ve been talking about it all summer.”
The common consensus among students still planning to move to Laramie is that the school will have a tough time enforcing social distancing guidelines as well as wearing face coverings and avoiding large gatherings.
“Of course I care about the people that are susceptible to (the virus),” Quintana said. “But for the majority of us students, we aren’t as susceptible.
“I want to experience my freshman year because I have dreamed for this moment since I was a kid. It’s going to be really hard for UW to keep students in the rooms.”
As for the university being able to make it through its full four-phase reopening plan, all three local UW students said they have their doubts.
Quintana requested time off work as a lifeguard at the Campbell County Recreation Center for the fall semester. When handing in the request, Quintana told her boss that her availability is “subject to change.”
“I just don’t have a lot of faith in it,” Quintana said about maintaining in-person classes for the full semester.
The thought of another canceled semester will linger with students as long as COVID-19 is still an issue.
They also have observed other universities that resumed in-person classes earlier this month have already stopped or gone online-only.
“This isn’t really how I envisioned (starting college) I guess,” Richter said. “There is a little fear in the back of my mind, but I guess we’ll see.”
Jones said starting her college education virtually isn’t as big a deal, but she does have her doubts that the semester will go on without any hiccups.
“I’m really hoping that we can still go on as planned, but I’m not sure how long it’s going to last when we all get down there,” Jones said. “It’ll be really weird at first because all of us freshmen are scared about starting college already and not really knowing what’s going on. There won’t be any upperclassmen on campus to help us.
“I’ve been looking forward to this college experience for a long time. It would suck if it just got cut short.”
Through the stress and sadness the COVID-19 pandemic has brought her and millions of other students across the country, Quintana has a new appreciation for normalcy in her everyday life.
Quintana and her sister constantly joke about how they’ve lived the same day over and over again since March.
“Some people have handled COVID really well, in a really positive way,” Quintana said. “I was not one of those people.
“It kind of just turned into one thing after another after another after another. Finally, I just kind of grew numb to it. It made me realize I took my old life and the old world for granted.”
Quintana said it would be “heartbreaking” for the fall semester to be cut short. Yet, she’s prepared to have her heart broken again.
“It’s almost easier just to assume the worst is going to happen,” Quintana said. “I’m just trying to protect my own feelings right now because I’ve been looking forward to this for literally my entire life.”
In-person instruction is set to end when students are dismissed for Thanksgiving break. Similarly to Gillette College, students will finish the semester and take final exams virtually.
Not just a long spring break
Kaedon and Jett Tuomela are a year apart in age.
Kaedon will be a freshman at UW this fall while Jett is starting his sophomore year. Jett already has moved into his off-campus housing in Laramie while his brother Kaedon lags behind in Gillette.
Kaedon won’t know when to move until Friday.
“At first I thought, ‘Yeah, this is just a longer spring break’ because that’s what everyone thought it was going to be,” Kaedon said. “But then I started getting really frustrated when we were told (at Thunder Basin High School) that the rest of the semester would be online.
Jennifer Tuomela, Kaedon and Jett’s mother, doesn’t want her sons to lose out on that college experience.
“They’ve kind of just been robbed of so many things already,” Jennifer said. “Of course you want to see your kids go.”
Jett was reimbursed about $2,000 when his spring semester at UW transitioned to completely online. He doesn’t think that was enough.
“For what the classes provided online, I do not think it was worth my money,” Jett said. “In my opinion, we should have been refunded most of our money because half our semester was cut off and we weren’t allowed to use any of the resources on campus.”
Jett was not satisfied with the virtual education he received in the spring.
“I really disliked it. I did not like the teaching format and I feel like I could have taught myself better,” Jett said. “It was rushed. Everything was just thrown online because of COVID and I just don’t think teachers had enough time to prepare for it, so classes just kind of failed in my eyes.”
Jennifer doesn’t expect her sons or any other Cowboys on campus to stay put in their dorm rooms or apartments 24/7 upon arrival.
“That social aspect of college is so important,” Jennifer said. “The social aspect almost outweighs some of the classwork in that first or second year in some ways.”
Jett’s off-campus lease allows him to stay in Laramie if a COVID outbreak shuts down the campus. Because of UW’s policy that requires freshman to live on campus their first year, Kaedon isn’t so lucky.
“If we get sent home and I have to come back to Gillette to do classes online, it’ll definitely be pretty frustrating because I could have easily just paid to do that at Gillette College,” Kaedon said. “And for a lot less (money).”
With the first phase of UW’s re-opening plan set to begin Monday, any sense of certainty for the incoming freshman is about as far from Gillette as UW’s campus.