Starting an online school in the middle of a pandemic is difficult. Running it can be even harder. That’s why the Cody School District is going to search for a little help to take its virtual school to the next level.

At a board meeting Tuesday night, the Cody School Board approved a new position in the district, a principal for Cody Virtual Education, the district’s online school. COVE had 22 students as of October.

It was one of several new principal hires. Cody Middle School is getting a new team in principal Nathan Tedjeske and assistant principal Jacob Gogan for the new school year, replacing Kelly Merager and Patrick Couture, respectively. Allison Lewis is leaving her position as the Sunset assistant principal to become the head honcho at Livingston, replacing longtime principal Mike Wood.

The district confirmed the hires at Tuesday’s meeting.

The move to add a principal is more of a reshuffle than creating a new position, as the district decided to cut Lewis’s position at Sunset.

The COVE principal won’t be solely overseeing the virtual school. The new hire would also oversee the rural schools –Valley and Wapiti elementary schools – as well as after-school tutoring and summer school programs. That would make the principal responsible for 41 students, based on last fall’s enrollment, across the three schools.

There is a key difference between the principals at other schools and whoever takes charge with COVE: the COVE principal position is funded through grants, not the usual funding model. The plan for the moment is to pay the principal with ESSER funds, a component of the CARES Act specifically given to schools to help them deal with the pandemic. COVE, however, was not funded through ESSER grants. The district spent $106,000 out of its general budget to stand up the virtual school.

ESSER funds have a set shelf life, meaning in about three years the district will have to do away with the position or start paying the person out of its regular budget like other administrators.

“We stood up a virtual school within school through COVE, but in that setup, none of us felt like we were able to give it the attention it needed to be successful,” said superintendent Peg Monteith. “If we want to give COVE a chance, we need to give this the attention it deserves.”

The decision comes as changes to virtual education in the area arrive. A one-year agreement with the Cowley School District to let Wyoming Connections Academy students choose to count Cody as their home district is coming to end soon. That deal helped bring some money for student enrollment back to the Cody district, but the district will again be in competition with Connections in the coming school year if the agreement is not renewed.

Cody enrollment was down 80 students as of October, which is when districts report enrollment to the state.

Another key component to the decision is virtual schools cropping up around the state and country in the wake of the pandemic, including in the Big Horn Basin. The Powell School District decided in March to launch its own virtual school, paid for with the same ESSER funds the COVE principal will be paid with. Powell is also facing declining enrollment numbers with some losses to virtual schools like Connections.

“We started the year down 60 or 70 kids,” Powell assistant superintendent Jason Sleep said. “We felt now was the opportunity to start this while we had the seed money.”

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