Casper area teachers adapt to teaching amid COVID-19 closures (PHOTOS) - Casper, WY Oil City News
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Casper area teachers adapt to teaching amid COVID-19 closures (PHOTOS)

Southridge Elementary students connect with their school’s “Kindness Club” online. (NCSD, Facebook)

CASPER, Wyo. — Schools in Natrona County are closed until at least April 20, 2020.

NCSD Associate Superintendent of Curriculum & Instruction Walt Wilcox acknowledged that this will be a challenging time for the district and for teachers.

If the closures “were to continue over the next nine weeks,” Wilcox said that work will need to be done to streamline how education is delivered to students.

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“We know it is going to place a burden on teachers,” he said. “It will be a shift. It will be a challenge.”

But Wilcox said that teachers are already making some of the necessary shifts and have been since schools first closed on March 16.

Manor Heights Elementary student Sydney writes a letter to her great grandmother, who lives in an assisted living facility. (NCSD, Facebook)

“I feel confident that our educators are up to the task and willing to step up,” he said.

Delivering instruction to students online will be a “shift in the style of delivery and learning that we’ve never seen before,” Wilcox said. He explained that staff across the district are working toward how to deliver core content areas, incorporating other important educational areas such as physical education, in a “streamlined,” efficient way accessible to students.

While students’ participation in learning opportunities currently offered through NCSD schools is voluntary, teachers and schools are using various tools to reach students, according to principals at both Park Elementary School and Evansville Elementary School (links are to these schools’ Facebook pages).

A Park student’s letter to Principal Emily Catellier. (NCSD, Facebook)

Both schools are utilizing video functions on Facebook to connect with students.

Park Principal Emily Catellier, for example, has been delivering daily announcements, which have included daily challenges, for students.

“We’re making lemonades out of lemons,” Catellier told Oil City on Tuesday.

Principal Emily Catellier signals for students to quiet down during a groundbreaking ceremony at Park Elementary School. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)

“When we first got wind of this whole thing, it kind of forced us to reflect on what is truly important,” she added.

Catellier, along with other NCSD officials including trustees, have emphasized that their primary concerns are the health and safety of students and staff.

Teachers are missing their students and working hard to find unique ways to connect and help let their students know their teachers are out there and care about them.

“We kind of thrive on relationships,” Catellier said.

She says that all around the district educators are trying to be innovative in their approach, adding that teachers have “taken some creative liberties on how to reach out to them.”

But the innovation also has a purpose, which during this transition has been about “looking for those little opportunities to raise some sense of normalcy throughout the day.”

That has included teachers reading books aloud for students over video:

(Park Elementary School, Facebook)

Catellier adds that food services throughout the district have been an important piece of that component. She says that includes both the district’s meal service available through 15 schools, but also the Wyoming Food for Thought Project bag distribution program. “We have quite a few” Park students who receive food bags through that program, Catellier says.

But while schools are on extended closure, Catellier says that Park staff have also picked up and delivered meals to students.

In terms of delivery of educational instruction, teachers are doing a variety of things.

“It kind of runs the gamut,” Catellier says. “Our overall purpose now is for students to maintain the learning they have done so far this year.”

“We have not moved to any new learning right now.”

Some teachers are Park are utilizing Google classrooms or other tools to hold class meeting sessions. Since Park is a Dual Language Immersion program school, the school is finding ways “to continue to teach with the Spanish language as a review.”

The district as a whole is working to figure out whether students have access to the internet as well what kind of devices they have access to.

The Natrona County Public Library has gifted about 5,000 books to homebound students. (NCSD, Facebook)

That’s something that St. Anthony’s School Tri-parish Catholic School (SAS) in Casper, which serves a much smaller student population than NCSD’s roughly 13,000 students, was able to address during the first week of school closures.

St. Anthony’s School has 259 students, according to Principal Cyndy Novotny.

St. Anthony’s School tends to follow NCSD decisions about school closures for things like snow days, and followed the district’s initial COVID-19 closure time frame of March 16 through April 20. However, in other ways SAS’s is on the leading edge of delivery of education online.

At the start of the 2019-2020 school year, St. Anthony’s School was named as a “Microsoft Showcase School”, one of only several dozens in the country and the only in Wyoming.

Once school closures were decided, teachers at SAS started to develop their lessons online, according to Novotny.

“Onward and upward and forward,” she says of the educational delivery happening through the school.

“I’m hearing good reports so far,” Novotny says of teachers adapting to the new situation.

St. Anthony’s School has also been utilizing Facebook to celebrate student work. This is an 8th grader, Caden, showing his completed “Passion Project.” (SAS, Facebook)

Teachers met on Monday, March 16, the first day of the closure, to begin to coordinate. Parents were invited to the school on Tuesday, with the school implementing certain social distancing and health precautions, to pick up anything kids might have had at the school they would need at home.

Families were also asked if they had any electronic device needs. Those that needed devices had those checked out to them through the school, ensuring that students would all have access to the learning opportunities the school would be able to facilitate.

“I think Spectrum is offering some temporary free connections,” Novotny added.

She says the school was able to help get some families connected with internet service options.

While the school has been able to ensure that students have access to the school’s teaching resources, the amount of direct interaction between teachers and students looks different.

Novotny says that teachers are facilitating lessons for about 2-2.5 hours a day, though these are not just worksheets but are designed lessons which engage students and deliver some new content.

“Not every kid is obviously participating in this,” SAS technology teacher Tim Galles said. “Some kids don’t want to.”

But he says that all parents have at least been informed of the options and that he thinks the majority of students are interacting with their teachers and the resources provided to at least some degree.

Galles and Technology Director Nick Dresang learned of the school closures while at a golf simulation facility. They are the only “Microsoft Innovative Educator Experts” in the state.

The two began to discuss what they could do to help teachers plan and adjust for the new teaching situation.

Galles says that he has been working with teachers throughout the year on how to integrate different technology options in the classroom, so in some way, helping teachers adjust to delivering distance education is an extension of that role.

While the school has had access to a variety of technology options even prior to the closures, Galles points out that some teachers are “a little uncomfortable doing stuff by themselves.”

He and Dresang’s role has been to help develop a “plan that would be manageable for everybody and not overwhelm us.” Galles says that teachers are responding well to the need to deliver teaching online.

“We’ve got a few teachers that are just rock stars when it comes to it,” he says. “We’ve been interacting with the teachers that have the questions… providing a tech support type of role.”

Galles says that he created some tutorials for teachers and “a little resource center,” showing them different things they can do with the various technologies available to them.

He’s also been checking in directly with smaller groups of teachers on group calls. The school may facilitate meeting with larger groups of teachers through Microsoft Teams, which allows group video meetings online.

“You can have up to 250 people in a meeting if you wanted to,” Galles says. “It runs pretty seamlessly and flawlessly.”

Teams is also something being used with teachers and students at upper grade levels.

At the primary grade levels, Kindergarten through second grade, Galles says that teachers are drawing upon Flipgrid, a Microsoft technology that he describes as “a video response-type platform.”

He says the tools with Flipgrid allow a great deal of teacher flexibility. That could include video, but that doesn’t have to be of people’s faces. The technology allows kids to draw or write text.

He says that students could interact with a mouse, but that most are more likely using touch screen devices.

“In a lot of the younger grades, because [teachers] have some comfort with classroom use,” Galles begins,”they’ve been able to use [technology] and respond accordingly.”

“The teacher can make some video recorded directions.”

That might mean making a short math lesson for kindergartners to get them to learn and practice counting. Galles says that teachers can also attach Youtube videos for students to watch and reflect upon.

SAS’s kindergarten teacher has used this to attach videos of people readings stories or pronunciation guide videos.

Galles is a “co-pilot” in the school’s Flipgrid network and is able to go in and look at everything teachers are creating. He says that teachers are working to avoid relying on worksheet-style lessons since “after a certain amount of time, that’s not going to work as much.”

The more interactive technology options give kids something to respond to.

“Most grades are actually using Flipgrid to some degree,” Galles says.

Microsoft Teams, a platform similar to Google Hangouts or Classroom, has been a tool important at upper grade levels at SAS.

“They use Teams in their class already,” Galles says. “It is like using it in a different way with a twist.”

Galles says that the “cool part about Teams” is the ability to assign things to students in an easy way and share files.

“You can also meet remotely with a call,” Galles says.

NCSD has been distributing food to children under 18 at 15 sites across the district. (NCSD, Facebook)

That allows teachers to hold class sessions and discussions more akin to meeting in a physical classroom. The meetings can also be recorded, so students who miss class can be directed to these recordings and catch up.

Teachers have been utilizing the technology to facilitate both smaller and larger group discussions.

While SAS is able to deliver new content, Galles says that review is also a component of what the school is doing. That’s been true especially over the early period of the school closures as the school fully rolls out their teaching methods.

Galles says that the first week or so has been “almost like a soft opening to a restaurant type of thing.”

Everyone is getting comfortable with the system. But as teachers and students are adjusting to the new situation, Galles says he’s seen teachers adding more layers during the second week since the school closed.

While figuring out the education delivery aspect of what schools provide for children is something SAS has been relatively well situated to approach, Galles adds that the well-being of students socially and emotionally is also critical.

Teachers have realized that the video options can provide “kind of a nice little safe space for kids to have.” Getting to see a teacher let’s kids know they are still out there and “reassures them that everything is going to be fine.”

“We’re still here and we’re here for you,” Galles says.

That’s something that you’ll hear from teachers and administrators, no matter the school.

Evansville Principal Wayne Tuttle says that teachers there want students to know that “we have them in our thoughts and we are concerned with them.”

His school, too, has been adjusting.

“The response from our staff has been incredible,” Tuttle says. “We have provided a number of resources on our school Facebook page.”

“We’ve created a learning hub. Kindergarten just had a reviewing thing, a counting thing.”

Older grade levels are directed to video resources and all students are encouraged to read.

“It is never a bad thing to encourage students to read,” Tuttle says.

There is content for each grade level with the focus being on enrichment and review of concepts students have been introduced to.

Teachers are thinking about “what are some of the things you can do to keep your brain stimulated and focused,” Tuttle says.

That includes unique things like Evansville teachers creating obstacle courses and challenging students, with parental permission, to do the same in their yards.

A sreenshot from an obstacle course challenge video created by an Evansville teacher. (Evansville Elementary School, Facebook)

Distance education might have some surprising ways to integrate physical education to help deliver other content areas. Unlike in a classroom, a student has access to space in their homes and yards where they can carry out instructions given by teachers.

The unique physical education opportunities are something Wilcox said at the NCSD Board of Trustees work session that the district is noticing and taking into account as they continue planning.

“This week we’ve created a kind of a virtual spirit day,” Tuttle says.

That’s something that Evansville staff saw at another NCSD school

“Staff members saw it and thought this was a great idea,” Tuttle adds.

That has included declaring a pajama day or a favorite color day, “things to keep kids engaged.” Tuttle says that teachers have also asked students to write letters or postcards to people in assisted living facilities.

Others are holding online Google Hangout sessions so that students can touch base with one another and their teachers.

Tuttle says that supporting his staff has been a key priority and that they are asked daily about what support they need.

“We realize it is a challenging time,” Tuttle says.

The school’s social worker volunteered to provide a listening ear to any teacher who needs support of any kind.

With Evansville one site which is providing meals to children under 18, Tuttle says that has included a lot of Evansville’s own student population in addition to children from other parts of the county.

Being a food service site also allows the school to help distribute Wyoming Food for Thought Project food bags, he adds.

As the district continues to adapt to the situation, Tuttle says that teachers are ready for the call.

“They are great at seeing where kids are and helping them move forward in their learning,” Tuttle says. “Every school is doing everything to do what they can to support our students.”

“Teachers care tremendously. We are in this together.”

Nevertheless, now, more than ever it is important that parents are actively involved in their children’s education. Tuttle points out that parents are in the best place to gauge the needs of their children.

Catellier shares some advice she gives to teachers.

“On the staff side of things, my mantra with them has been: it is time to get comfortable being uncomfortable,” she says.

“Our best hope when all of this is said and done,” she continues. We are more compassionate, we are more skilled.”

Teachers will do what they can withing state and district guidelines and “it is up to parent discretion at this point about how they want to integrate it.”

Trustee Clark Jensen said at the work session he is concerned about how the new teaching situation might impact students who were already struggling at school.

“I think that our students who are struggling already are going to have a difficult time,” he said, adding that helping kids cross the line to graduate was another thing on his mind.

Wilcox said that the district is looking at the need to possibly provide additional support services during summer school, which is a time when the district gives opportunities to help struggling students catch up.

Jensen acknowledged that the task facing the district to shift to delivering education online is enormous.

“I can’t imagine what it takes to mobilize this,” Jensen said. “This is not a small shift.”

Trustee Dave Applegate said that he thought it was important for the district to manage expectations, given that online teaching will be a challenge.

“I would just encourage the staff to think about that,” he said. “If we do have to move to this online platform….we [should] be quite honest with the community about what we will not be able to delivery.”

He said that if parents come to expect that the district is able to do things which they simply cannot, that “could create frustration.”

“We just need to be transparent as possible,” Applegate said.

Wilcox said that the district is finding ways to deliver core math, science or language arts content. Other content areas will not be ignored, but he said he expects to see things like social studies, health, art and music layered in with focus content areas, “embedded within the different activities.”

NCSD Associate Superintendent for Human Resources Verba Echols said at the work session that all NCSD employees are engaged in meaningful work and that all are being paid.

She said the district will continue to work toward hiring staff needed for next school year and will continue celebrating teachers set to retire.

“People show grace, people show flexibility,” Echols said of NCSD staff’s commitment during tough times.

After hearing updates from Wilcox and Echols, NCSD Board Vice Chair Dana Howie said she was impressed by the amount of work everyone is doing.

“I’m sort of overwhelmed with all the work that has already been done by everybody,” she said. “I’m just amazed at how you all are working together with such grace.”

Trustees thanked the public for their patience as the district works to address their challenges.

“We are working diligently to identify next steps,” Board Chair Rita Walsh said. “We do thank you for your patience and understanding. It is difficult and new for everyone. Keep students and staff safe, that is our highest priority. Thanks to all of our staff.”

The Latest Statistics from the Wyoming Department of Health:

What to do if you are feeling sick: In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Casper-Natrona County Health Department says that people who are feeling sick or exhibiting symptoms should contact their primary physician.

If you do not have a primary care provider, and live in Natrona County, please contact the COVID-19 hotline, operated by the Casper-Natrona County Department of Health. The line is open Monday – Friday 8:00 am – 5:00 pm 577-9892. Hotline services are intended for Natrona County residents and may not be able to provide specific information to persons calling from out of county.

Officials ask that you please do not self-report to the Emergency Room. Persons experiencing problems breathing should call 9-11.

For general inquiries and non-symptom related questions about COVID-19, please contact the Casper-Natrona County Health Department via email:

  • Practice Social Distancing by putting distance between yourself and other people. This is especially important for people who are at higher risk of getting very sick.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds especially after you have been in a public place, or after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. If soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick
  • Stay home if you’re sick
  • Cover coughs and sneezes. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze or use the inside of your elbow.
  • Clean AND disinfect frequently touched surfaces daily. This includes tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets, and sinks.

A list of area closures attributed to COVID-19 are available here.