Sunset School second-grader Liam Geraghty participates in the Sunset Fun Run on Friday.

When the school bell rang for the first time in Cody schools last fall, there was a sigh of relief from parents and teachers alike.

“My son needs to get out of the house,” said Rebecca Johnson of her son, an Eastside student. “He needs that social experience with kids his own age.”

“I showed up wearing a hazmat suit, goggles and rubber gloves,” said business teacher Mark Landerman of the first day of school. “I wanted to let those kids know that whatever it takes to get back here, we will do.”

For students, being back in the classroom and around their peers was critical. After an influx of suicide evaluations of high school students to start the year – 22 in just a week – things went back to normal with counseling services fairly fast.

“Very clearly that indicated that our kids were under a tremendous amount of stress,” said CHS psychologist Dr. Daniel Cossaboon said. “I think it was a combination of a bunch of different things, namely the quarantine.”

It wasn’t just the quarantine, though, he said. The blend of events in 2020, from the civil unrest over the summer in the wake of the murder of George Floyd that turned violent in some places to fears over family members getting sick to simply being cooped up with the same people for too long were all sources of stress for students.

Cody students were lucky though, even among their peers in Wyoming. Cody schools stayed open the entire year, while some schools like those in Riverton had to shut down part of the year. Other schools, like Wyoming Indian and St. Stephens, didn’t reopen until the New Year had come and gone, and even then were offering a mixture of in-person and online classes.

Around the nation, only about a third of students were enrolled in wholly in-person classes by January of 2021, according to data collected by the U.S. Department of Education. Another third or so were enrolled in hybrid courses. Schools in the coastal states were far less likely to have fully in-person classes offered to everyone, with most schools in most of those states sticking with remote learning for most students.

Being back in-person has had a strong positive impact on the students, Cossaboon said.

“It’s gotten much better since the start of the school year,” he said. “Once this became our new normal and students were back with their friends, life became a little more ‘normal.’ We saw anxiety go down, suicidal ideation go down.”

Perhaps the most surprising thing for Cossaboon, however, is how the kids have changed their behavior since coming back to school. Beyond being compliant with the mask mandates that have now been rescinded, he said there’s been a difference in how kids treat each other. That’s translated into a drop in behavioral referrals to his office.

“I would say that kids’ behavior was better, more humble, kinder, than it had been previous to the pandemic,” Cossaboon said. “The pandemic forced everyone to deal with mortality. They came back in a gentler mindset.”

There have been some conflicting reports at the elementary level. Some elementary parents are reporting their kids are experiencing more anxiety, though the principals could not say the same. In a discussion on testing on April 20, the school board questioned the elementary principals about how their students were doing and possible decreases in empathy.

Eastside principal Nick Gallagher did not have any data to share with the board but said that based on his observations, he “can’t speak to any noticeable differences.” Sunset principal Jay McCarten, who oversees a school where one in five students have a disability of some kind, said what he has seen has been similar to Gallagher, though there have been increases in severity for students who were at risk prior to the closure.

“I think a lot of it is this,” McCarten said, gesturing to his mask. He explained how much like teaching students to form words, they teach students about empathy through facial expression.

“When you talk about the masks, a smile from anybody to another person can defuse a lot of things that sometimes are taken incorrectly. You can only read so much with a person’s eyes.”

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