SWEETWATER COUNTY — Sweetwater County School Districts No. 1 and No. 2 have both nearly made it a semester of in-school instruction after having to move to remote learning last year due to the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic.
Although schools are able to conduct learning in the classroom, things look a bit different this year, face masks being the most obvious and prevalent change. In October, we asked our readers to respond to a poll about how this school year was going and whether there were any challenges.
We received over 300 responses to that poll, in which responders said wearing masks and enforcing mask use, changes to students’ social lives, and learning new technology have been the primary challenges faced this semester.
While those challenges have been substantial for some, the majority of responders said that they themselves felt safe at school, and most parents said they felt safe having their children attend Sweetwater County schools.
Since then, we’ve reached out to a few responders and asked if their initial answers on the poll were still relevant to how they are feeling now. Two students at Rock Springs High School and a Green River parent of three students discussed their opinions on safety and challenges faced this year.
Safety in Schools
Kadence Hill, a senior at Rock Springs High School (RSHS) said that earlier in the school year, she was more concerned about the threat of COVID-19 at school than she is now.
“I felt like I was more prone to getting COVID-19 at school in the beginning of the year, but now I feel like the school has kept up with the cases and changed their plans as needed,” Hill said.
However, RSHS student Madison Blake said she struggles to feel safe due to other students not taking mask use seriously.
“Many students in some of my classes don’t wear their masks and it worries me because they are people who would go out in public and don’t wear their masks in public,” Blake said. “Not to mention, some have been quarantined and have had the virus.”
She said this problem has not been fixed in some of her classes, and that she would feel safer at school if teachers were more consistent in enforcing mask use.
“I feel like all the teachers should be mandating masks more strictly than how some teachers are just not giving a care at all,” she said.
Irish Kreis, a Green River parent of three kids, said she has felt safe sending her kids to school since the start of the year. She has two kids attending Monroe Elementary, age seven in first grade and age nine in fourth grade, and one kid attending Lincoln Middle School, age 11 in sixth grade.
“Monroe is outfitted with plenty of hand sanitizing stations, the kids are doing well wearing their masks, and they are practicing social distancing at lunch,” Kreis said.
She said the students also seem to be taking personal responsibility for keeping both themselves and their friends safe.
Though Kreis has not been inside the Lincoln building, she said her middle schooler assures her that he and his classmates are being responsible.
Challenges Would Worsen With a Move to Online Learning
Both Hill and Blake said wearing the masks all day at school can be challenging, noting breakouts, headaches, and discomfort as struggles they’ve faced this school year.
“When you wear a mask for the whole day, your face gets very irritated and causes excessive oil which leads to breakouts,” Hill explained. “I also have been getting light headed and I think it’s related to the masks because I’m still not used to it.”
Blake agreed that breakouts have been an issue for many students. She also said that the more layers a mask has, the harder it is to wear it for an entire school day.
“If the masks is a thinner mask that doesn’t have a lot of layers, it works fine and I don’t have problems with it. Some masks make it hard to breathe and it sucks sometimes,” Blake said.
However, both students would rather wear the masks and continue with how school is being conducted than move back to online learning.
“If we switched to online, my grades would start dropping,” Hill said. “I need the social interaction with my teachers and classmates in-person for me to be successful. I feel like it would have a major impact on my personal life because I would spend most of my day in my room.”
Blake believes a move to completely remote learning would have a negative impact on her mental health, as she would miss out on interaction with her peers.
“I like the in-school classes so much better, and I really don’t want to go back to the online classes because it really hurt my mental health, and not seeing anyone really put a strain on how I felt,” Blake said.
She added that a hybrid of online and in-person learning could work out ok, which would be a Tier 2 learning plan.
“It would be a little better [than online] because then it’s not completely isolating people, but we still get to go in person,” she said.
Online Learning Presents New Concerns
Though many parents and students view safety as the primary concern this year, including Kreis, she also worries that if schools moved into Tier 2 or Tier 3 learning plans, there would be a decline in education.
“My kids will definitely see a downturn in learning if we are to go Tier 2 or 3. So much of what they learn is hands-on and so hard to replicate outside the classroom,” Kreis said.
Kreis said her husband has been working from home since March, so her family would not have the issue many others would have with figuring out how to have an adult at home facilitating the learning. However, she said having all the kids and her husband using the internet at the same time throughout the day would be a concern.
Disappointments and Adaptability
The pandemic has brought forth a need to be adaptable so students can continue learning, but also enjoy the other experiences that come with school. However, though many activities have been able to continue with restrictions and changes, there is still a disappointment attached with the changes made this year.
Hill expressed sadness for the senior year she was hoping for versus the reality of her senior year. She is a member of the RSHS marching band as well as the girls swim team, and COVID-19 has stripped away some of the experiences she was excited for.
“I was really looking forward to having my last state marching band and my final swim seasons like I did before. I knew stuff was going to be different, but I didn’t think that I was not going to be able to perform at the Casper Events Complex for the last time with the band,” Hill said.
She said the swim team also had to cut people from the team for the first time.
“It was hard to see some of them go,” she said. “We also had to restrict the amount of swimmers we took to meets, and I didn’t get to go to one overnight meet, and it was a little saddening.”
Kreis said that her biggest takeaway from this school year has been the flexibility that has been necessary to preserve as many school experiences as possible.
“Our children are so hungry for experiences. At Monroe, they are being flexible with the experiences they provide to the students, from a virtual awards assembly to the upcoming virtual Christmas concert,” Kreis said.
Kreis explained that the flexibility on behalf of teachers, students, and parents alike, has been crucial in ensuring the kids don’t have to miss out on simply being kids.
“By being flexible they are able to keep things flowing in a way the students expect while also keeping them and our community safe,” Kreis said.