Moorcroft Leader - The Voice of the Community Since 1909, Serving Moorcroft and Pine Haven, Wyoming

By Jillian Balow
Superintendent of Public Instruction 

Upended: This describes our education system today, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Or does it?


April 30, 2020

What we have come to value and measure in education policy – assessments, accountability and student seat time – were immediately ditched in the face of the pandemic.

Our schools, despite being closed to students, remain hubs for teaching, learning and providing meals to students. How is this being accomplished? 

For starters, we know that technology has made remote delivery of quality instruction possible. Since April 6, every school district in Wyoming has operated under their state-approved “Adapted” Learning Plan” that summarizes their approach for engaging all students during the pandemic. Overnight, quite literally, we witnessed the most significant re-prioritization of learning and teaching in the history of modern education. 

In a recent video message to students I said, “This won’t feel like normal school.” Indeed, it does not. From working at the kitchen counter to completing assignments for a pass/fail grade to missing friends – none of this feels quite right.

What feels normal, though, is continued student curiosity, passionate teachers who will do anything to facilitate learning, parents who try their best to support their child’s learning and community members who care about the success of youth and our future. 

Wyoming is a national leader in establishing the best framework of education policy, guidance and leadership. And that framework has been tested to the limits each and every day since March 16, when Governor Mark Gordon and I recommended school closures statewide.

Five weeks later, we continue to navigate these unprecedented times. And as we navigate, we also look ahead to how we can be better as a result of COVID-19 closures.

Frankly, it would be foolhardy to expect education to go back to the way it was. Wyoming education can and will “win the shutdown,” because we are planning for a future of schooling that has more of what matters and less of what does not. 

One vehicle for these reflections is Governor Gordon’s COVID-19 Education Task Force. With representation from child care through college, we are working together to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 on students experiencing key milestones such as kindergarten entry and high school graduation. We are also working together to maximize every dollar coming into Wyoming for education stabilization as the result of the CARES Act. 

At the very least, some of the incoming dollars should be used to permanently stand up a stronger virtual education system to augment classroom instruction – this includes infrastructure, technology, teacher training and learning materials across our entire state. A “blended learning” approach is natural to this generation of students who are both tech savvy and used to the brick and mortar of school buildings.

It is also mainstream in post-secondary education and workforce training. Yet, until five weeks ago, many teachers and schools did not leverage blended learning at all. 

Next, a problematic dichotomy we’ve lived with – for far too long – is a disconnect between mandated student seat time and what we expect in real life related to learning. Competency-based learning requires students to demonstrate skills versus marking time in class.

COVID-19 has pushed competency-based learning into core subjects as students direct their learning from home and test on those subjects when they feel prepared. Career and Technical Education teachers have been operating on a competency-based model for years – and it works! 

There’s a lot more to evaluate in education in the coming months and years. Will standardized tests carry the same weight? Will physical and health education see a resurgence in importance?

What about more deliberate K-12 alignment to industry needs with the unemployment crisis we face? I’m grateful to serve as the President for the Council of Chief State School Officers where I hope to spur these conversations along. 

Above, I mentioned four key groups: students, teachers, parents and community members and I have a short message for each of you:

Students – Embrace the learning opportunities all around you. Express your thoughts about these crazy times through writing, art, music, movement, theater and more. 

Teachers – Wyoming’s 2020 Teacher of the Year, Dane Weaver of Ten Sleep said it best, “Your purpose has never been more clear. Our students deserve our best.” Many of you are on a steep learning curve – stay on it.

Parents – You are your child’s most important teacher AND you wear a superhero cape. 

Communities – Our students are watching you, learning from you – make it count. 

In closing, I am an optimist. We have seen dark days over these past weeks but you are my inspiration, Wyomingites! Keep leading in your communities. Keep checking on your neighbors. Stay safe. Stay healthy.


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