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Newfound interest in virtual education during COVID-19 pandemic

The first day of school in the Campbell County School District this fall was a welcome return to in-person learning for many. But despite all the hard work the district had done to get students safely back into buildings during the COVID-19 pandemic, many students did not return.

Those families instead chose to continue their children’s education how they ended last semester — virtually.

Virtual education is a simple concept: Teachers and students need not be in the same place for education to happen. Through the marvel of technology, distance is irrelevant and classrooms can be wherever the student is.

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Cohen Uhler, 10, returns pill bugs used for a virtual classroom science project Thursday in the family backyard. His is one of many local families choosing to educate through virtual learning.

Last year, the Campbell County Virtual School had 12 students before the pandemic. This year, it has 148. The enrollment numbers reflect a 1,133% increase in students now attending CCVS, the virtual education offering for kindergarten through sixth grade students.

Online instruction and all it entails — lessons conducted via video chats, internet glitches, workarounds and the overall decentralization of education — is old hat for CCVS.

CCVS offers that option for families with elementary students in the district. But the increase in enrollment at CCVS cannot tell how many students have elected for virtual education in total. It’s simply indicative of a trend.

Older students may enroll in Wyoming Virtual Academy, based in Lusk and an accredited school in the Niobrara County School District, or in Wyoming Connections Academy, based in Cody and an accredited school in the Big Horn County School District.

These have been options for Wyoming families for many years and have, for the most part, hummed along in the background, used by a small number of families to meet their very specific educational and lifestyle needs.

Greg Schliske, a longtime CCVS teacher, described the experiences of virtual students as fundamentally identical to those attending in brick-and-mortar environments in all the metrics that count.

“The courses are aligned to the Common Core and the state standards,” Schliske said.

“They don’t have the same text and the same books as the district,” he pointed out, but the lessons and objectives are covering the same material as students in any district school.

The students are self-guided, helped along by their parents (aka “learning coaches”) especially when younger, and the teachers monitor from afar to ensure mastery concepts before moving along. Teachers then reach out to parents and students at intervals throughout the week to check progress and provide assistance as needed.

They also stand ready to respond to sudden needs from students and parents.

The COVID-19 pandemic sparked interest in CCVS like the local school district hasn’t seen in its history. Sclishke said they had to hire three new teachers to keep up with the demand.

Different reasons, same solution

There are many reasons parents may elect to pursue virtual education for their children in 2020.

“I think that families see how they raise their children and then they want to either be more involved or they want something different that fits their scheduling,” said Laurie Davis, principal at both CCVS and Little Powder School. “When we had larger numbers, we had professionals in our district that thought, ‘This would be good so that we can travel for business.’

“It made it easier for them to not take their kids out, but take their kids to work with them. It’s just an ideal setting for some. For others, it could be fragile health. This helps their families.”

Health concerns are elevated for some during the COVID-19 pandemic. A parent may fear for a child’s exposure or there might be an immunocompromised person living in the household.

“It makes perfect sense,” Davis said. “They were uncertain about what the school district was going to do, they didn’t know what that plan, that reopening plan, was going to be.”

Other parents have made decisions rooted in COVID-19, but not out of safety concerns. Their focus was to break free from what they view as oppressive and unnecessary public health measures they believe stifle the educational process.

These parents spoke from positions of frustration and strong disagreement with the district, casting it as a wrongheaded group and one with policies detrimental to their children. Their positions also are rooted in political ideology.

One such parent is Shirley Nyhus. Her son is 15 years old and would have been a sophomore at Thunder Basin High School this school year but is now enrolled in Wyoming Connections Academy. She was skeptical of the district’s motivations for imposing COVID-19-related safety precautions before the school year started.

“I don’t have faith in the community, our leaders to have his best interest at heart,” Nyhus said. “I don’t think masks are going to help like they think they are, and I don’t think kids should be forced to wear them.”

She described the coronavirus policies as a “scare tactic” and said that her decision was based in part on her belief that “a two-week shutdown has gone into six months and enough is enough.”

Nyhus wasn’t sure what she’d do if her son were to struggle with home-school through Wyoming Connections Academy, because it was not a given that he’d simply go back to a brick-and-mortar school, especially if the district’s COVID restrictions get “worse.” If they do, Nyhus said that “we would just struggle through virtual.”

Nyhus defined “worse” by recounting two stories she saw on social media, stories that scared her, though she said she hadn’t yet vetted them to see if they are true.

In one instance, Nyhus said that “one child was removed from her parents’ care because of COVID,” and in the other, she said that “some children had been quarantined without parents being able to get there, or they might be quarantined and you won’t have access to them or they might be vaccinated and you can’t stop them.”

Although she reiterated she hadn’t verified the accuracy of any of those concerning stories, Nyhus said that, if true, the vaccination one “obviously is the worst-case scenario.”

She then admitted she’s skeptical of those accounts, but wonders if there’s even a grain of truth behind them.

“I also didn’t think that Portland would burn for 90 days, or Chicago or whatever, and have it go on and on and on,” she said. “I think if these riots can last as long as they have, my child can be in that situation in America.”

Nyhus’ adult daughter, Terra Garrison, is a parent of two young girls who also has elected to home-school them for the duration of the 2020-21 school year.

She made the decision relatively late in the summer.

“Toward the end of the summer, I didn’t really trust the government to do what I would want,” Garrison said. “I figured that going to school like that, with masks and social distancing and over-cleanliness, I figured it would just do more damage to their mental and emotional health and kind of put their education on the back burner.”

She said public school is a valuable experience because of the opportunities it provides children to socialize. But she worried that wouldn’t happen this year because of the district’s COVID-19 policies.

“With social distancing and all that, they weren’t going to get that,” Garrison said. “It’s going to be more of, ‘You sit in your cube, do your work and then go home at the end of the day.’”

She said she didn’t want to call the environment “jail-like,” but that “it just seemed more cubicle-ized and, ‘Stay away from everybody, but we’re going to teach you what we have to,’ and that’s just not what I wanted for them.”

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Cohen Uhler, 10, jotted down the differences observed between pill bugs in warm water, cold water and a control with no temperature change.

‘We’ve been here since the beginning’

The explosion of home-schooling has been nationwide, but the option for virtual education has long-standing precedent in Campbell County.

The Virtual School began with the 2006-07 school year, despite early complications surrounding a lack of state funding. It’s been available to families for more than a decade before COVID-19 emerged, and those with longstanding experience with virtual education seem to view the district more favorably.

One such parent is Janell Uhler, who has a long history with virtual education in the local school district.

Choosing virtual education “doesn’t mean you don’t like something about our district,” Uhler said. “It means that you’re taking advantage of opportunities they’ve given us.”

She was relentlessly complimentary of the district and the state for their willingness to offer virtual education opportunities.

Two of her kids are now enrolled in Wyoming Virtual Academy and her youngest is enrolled in CCVS. Her older kids were in CCVS when they were younger and had also transitioned back to brick-and-mortar schools in the district.

Her experience with virtual education made her comfortable with the possibility of choosing virtual education for her kids this year. Many factors weighed in her decision, including an impending move out of the area and COVID-19 because they’re living with immunocompromised parents.

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Cohen Uhler, 10, at left, points out the differences observed when putting pill bugs into cold water versus hot water in the family kitchen while completing a virtual school science assignment Thursday.

“It was an easy yes,” Uhler said. “We were unsure about how we were going to juggle school anyway.”

Uhler’s oldest, Carter, 15, is an old pro when it comes to virtual education.

“There’s definitely a lot to like about it,” he said. “I like that it’s independent and I can choose what I want to do, when I want to do it.

“In WYVA, there’s a schedule and I don’t necessarily have to start from the top to the bottom. ... I can start in the middle. I can basically do what I want when I want in the program, which is really convenient.”

He likes the online lessons and being able to chat privately with the teachers.

Uhler was honest about the commitment involved in deciding to home school for students and parents. She dispelled any notion that students have it easier than in a school building.

“You can be expelled from WYVA,” she said. “They don’t carry you, it’s rigorous. It’s not just a check mark and a pass.”

Davis agreed.

“Parents might have thought it was going to be just like last spring,” she said. “Last spring, the state made accommodations for all of us to be able to educate kids through the end of the school year, but it was quite different from the rigor that’s expected in the classroom.

“We were concerned about that, and it is one of the most difficult things to explain to parents, that this is nothing like that.”

For parents, Uhler stressed the positives that accrue to those who want to home-school their children.

“It’s so cool to be a part of your kiddos’ learning and be side-by-side by them and watch them and be a part of what they are learning every day,” Uhler said. “It’s really, really amazing. It’s just another part of watching your kids grow up and watching them learn and become who they want to be.”

Two other veteran parents of virtual education are Annette and Lincoln Shuck, who have one child in Wyoming Virtual Academy and one in CCVS.

“Well, I can tell you, with our son, we’ve been in it since the beginning,” Annette said. “Our oldest son started 13 years ago in Campbell County School District Virtual School, and we chose it because it is a public school, not a home school.”

Lincoln said his career as a miner made the virtual school option very appealing.

“We worked odd shifts,” he said. “Family time, to me, was extremely critical. They’d be in school and I’d be off, and vice-versa. Here, we could go to school the same hours, but if dad had a day off and mom had a day off, we could actually have quality family time together and still get the required school work done.”

Annette stressed the quality of the program, pointing out that as parents, they are given access to state-certified teachers to backstop them in their role of learning coaches for their children.

“It’s very much in cooperation with a public school-certified teacher, and that’s why we like it,” she said. “We’re not on our own. We have that support.”

They look at their children, who each have special educational needs, as a prime advertisement for the versatility and efficacy of virtual education. Their oldest, now in Wyoming Virtual Academy, is a gifted student. The curriculum is rigorous and allows him to go at his own pace.

“Our youngest is autistic and has an IEP,” Lincoln said, referencing an individualized education program. “If someone has a child with needs, this program can be very successful for people.”

The couple spoke in alternating chunks, finishing thoughts the other had started, in complete agreement.

“Our kids are six years apart, but because it worked so well for (our oldest) then we tried it with our youngest, and it’s proven to be the best environment for him as well,” Annette said.

Without missing a beat, Lincoln continued, “And there again, our youngest is a whole different set of reasons than our oldest. The oldest was high-end education. The other one was delayed education.”

“And they both thrived,” Annette concluded.

Not for everyone, wonderful for some

Uhler warned that parents should think seriously before they make the decision to do virtual education.

“I’m not saying that everyone should jump out of the classroom, because it’s not always easy,” she said. “And it’s not for everyone.”

But if they do, the Shucks are adamant that it’s worthwhile.

“It is as good as a public school, brick-and-mortar, in my opinion, on all facets of education,” Lincoln said. “It’s got the same totality, the same numbers, the same curriculum. Your child is not missing out on anything.

“Social interaction to your family is enhanced because you have hands-on with your most precious asset in the world, and that’s your children. You have the best opportunity to mold them into a conscientious human being that you would like them to be.”

Donavon Voigt walks his calculus class through an equation at Thunder Basin High School on Thursday morning.

top story
Four legislators create, sign Republican contract
Pact asks lawmakers to commit to 10 goals, including supporting the party’s platform

Four local Republicans have signed their names to a contract that outlines their intentions going into the 2021 legislative session.

Rep. Roy Edwards and three incoming legislators — Troy McKeown, Bill Fortner and John Bear — have come together and committed to 10 goals covering personal freedoms, government accountability and the economy. The goals are outlined in the “Republicans of Campbell County Contract.”

McKeown, Fortner and Bear talked about the contract at a Campbell County Republican Party Central Committee meeting Wednesday evening.

The four legislators and legislators-to-be have committed to agreement on the 10 items laid out in the contract, Bear said. In two years, a new contract will be drawn up based on events current as of 2022.

The central committee was supposed to vote on the resolution that night, but it ended up not going up for a vote because of a technicality.

Bear said all of Campbell County’s legislators were given a chance to sign the contract, and for one reason or another, they refused. He added that some did not sign it because they didn’t agree with 100% of the contract.

“If you have questions about why others didn’t sign it, I encourage you to talk to them about that,” he said.

Fortner said the media has portrayed the contract as “a purity test,” which he said is not accurate.

“If (other legislators) want to do something else, that’s up to them,” said Fortner, who will replace Rep. Bill Pownall in January.

“We’re totally fine with that,” Bear said. “My hope is in a couple of years we’ll have more people along these lines.”

The 10 tenets of the contract include:

  • Commit to voting for no new taxes.
  • Develop a budget that balances without using Wyoming’s rainy-day funds.
  • Provide voters transparency in state spending.
  • Advance a “Baby Born Alive” bill.
  • Advance a bill to establish Wyoming as a Second Amendment Sanctuary state.
  • Advance a bill to increase criminal penalties for sexual crimes against a minor and human trafficking convictions.
  • Advance a bill restricting the government from quarantining the healthy and forcing people to be vaccinated.
  • Advance a bill to allow for the recall of all elected officials in the state.
  • Advance a bill to allow family members to visit their loved ones in nursing homes.
  • Advance a voter ID bill.

The contract, as well as the reasoning behind each item on the contract, can be viewed at rocccontract.com.

For example, the group does not like how state statute has no mechanism to recall an elected official.

“If an elected official is egregiously mishandling official business, there ought to be a way for constituents to remove said official without waiting for the next election cycle,” the contract reads.

On preventing government overreach when it comes to public health emergencies, the contract points out that more people in Campbell County have died from car wrecks, the flu and cancer than from COVID-19, and that people should be given more freedom to deal with the next health crisis as they choose.

“Science is not conclusive on the effectiveness and consequences of vaccines,” the contract reads. “There are arguments on both sides of the vaccination issue. It is up to the individual to consider the facts.”

The contract also is a way for elected officials to be held accountable while in office.

“If we do something that’s not on this contract, we expect you to hold us accountable,” Fortner told the central committee.

Bear said the idea for the contract was born shortly after the primary election. While he and the other three men were on the campaign trail, they noticed “a great deal of excitement and interest” among young people.

“It’s really about the young voters right now that are suddenly interested based on what’s happening in the city, Washington and Oregon,” he said.

To be in the contract, an idea had to be in line with the Republican Party platforms, be something that the people of Campbell County cared about and be simple enough to be summarized in one sentence.

McKeown, who unseated longtime legislator Michael Von Flatern, said when the contract was released to the public, it scared some. But all the contract is, he said, is a commitment to the U.S. and Wyoming constitutions, as well as the Republican Party platforms.

“There’s a lot of bad blood in the party right now,” he said. “In a sense, we’re trying to bridge that gap. We’re trying to tell you what we stand for. We’re held accountable to you.”

“Another reason we committed to this is to show our vision,” Bear added. “Our vision is different from what’s been going on, and people spoke pretty resoundingly during this last election.”

He said they hope to get state spending under control. He pointed out that the state has pulled money out of its rainy day fund the last five years.

“You could argue that right now we have a rainy day with COVID and the shutdown of our economy. But four years prior to this we didn’t have that, yet we’re dipping into the rainy day fund,” he said.

A technicality prevented the central committee from voting on the resolution Wednesday. Precinct committeewoman Ronda Boller pointed out that the resolution could not brought up at the meeting because the proper procedure was not followed.

According to the party’s standing rule on resolutions, passed in 2018, resolutions must be posted on the party’s website at least three days before a scheduled meeting. The resolution was included in an email that was sent out to the central committee Monday, two days before the meeting.

Campbell County GOP Chairwoman Vicki Kissack said the email does not satisfy the requirement that the resolution be posted on the website and therefore the central committee could not vote Wednesday.

Even if the central committee had voted on the resolution Wednesday, there would have been some opposition. Precinct committeewoman Mary Horning said she would have objected to it had it gone up for a vote. She also said she was “very impressed” by the contract and the men who put it together.

“But I would absolutely object to the idea of us endorsing something that says we don’t trust our other legislators,” she said.