Boise keeps mask mandate — for now

Boise School District trustees decided to keep their mask mandate in place — for now.

After more than an hour of testimony and debate Monday night, trustees took no action on the mandate.

The board was set to discuss lifting its mandate, based on meeting materials provided Friday. But new COVID-19 developments like the Omicron coronavirus variant and plateauing pandemic metrics in state hospitals spurred a change of focus.

“Just because we came out of Crisis Standards of Care does not mean that it’s good,” said trustee Beth Oppenheimer, who expressed concern that local coronavirus spread metrics remain high.

District administrators suggested the board keep existing COVID-19 protocols. The measures should be reviewed in mid-February, officials said.

Newly appointed trustee Steve Schmidt said keeping the mask mandate in place was the best solution after reading what he called divided public comment from parents, and researching local sources and information from the medical community.

“If everybody is wearing a mask, it is protecting the whole,” said Schmidt, who was sworn in Monday.

Oppenheimer and trustee Nancy Gregory spoke about keeping kids in school five days a week. “I feel that the risk of holiday gatherings and Omicron present a threat to that,” Gregory said.

If more people were vaccinated, trustee Elizabeth Langley said, Monday’s decision could have been different.“I’m very grateful for the information we put out there, and I’m also very frustrated.”

Most Idaho districts and charters do not have mask mandates. The Caldwell and West Ada districts repealed theirs last month.

Sandy Cardon, a parent who founded the Boise School District Parents Association, which largely focuses on COVID-19 protocols, expressed disappointment with Boise’s decision to keep the mandate in place.

“We would like them to consider what other districts in Idaho and around the country are doing (or not doing) that are allowing them to keep their students in the classroom at higher rates without all of the sacrifices or extra burdens that are currently placed on families and staff,” Cardon told Idaho Education News in a text message Monday night.

The meeting’s COVID-19 portion largely revolved around testimony from two administrators of large Idaho hospital systems, who said they opposed ending the district’s mask mandate. The officials walked back comments they made in a Dec. 2 letter to the board that seemed to support ending the mask mandate after the holidays. Calling the prior comments dated, the officials said the situation on the ground had changed significantly from when they wrote it.

Although most Idaho hospitals have ended Crisis Standards of Care — which guides hospitals on how to ration health care to save people with the best chance of living — improving metrics within St. Luke’s Health System and Saint Alphonsus Medical Group have slowed, officials said. And unknowns about the new Omicron variant, which is believed to more infectious than the delta variant, cloud the pandemic’s outlook.

“It’s really week-to-week right now as far as what we know about Omicron,” said Dr. Kenny Bramwell, who directs the children’s hospital and service line at St. Luke’s Health System. “Early indicators suggest it may be more contagious than delta, which makes me shudder a little bit.”

Dr. Mark Nassir, president of Saint Alphonsus Medical Group, said the decline in COVID-19 patients that hospitals were seeing before the first letter has now stalled out. The holidays and recent social gatherings might be one cause, or Omicron could be fueling the spread.

Several audience members clapped when a Boise School District official mentioned many other local school districts are not requiring masks or contact tracing, and when the official asked about parent concerns that masks were harming children. The doctors speaking Monday said evidence does not suggest children are harmed by masks.

The hospital administrators on Monday sent board members a letter, which EdNews obtained Tuesday from the district, detailing their support for keeping Boise’s mask mandate.

The administrators cited three reasons for the recommendation:

  • An “uptick in hospitalized patients with the consistently high positive testing rates.”
  • A case of the Omicron variant being confirmed in Idaho.
  • Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and American Academy of Pediatrics.

District administrators also mentioned their exploration of a program that would let children exposed to coronavirus use rapid tests multiple times to prove they were not infected. The policy is meant to curb quarantine days that students spend out of school.

By February, Boise administration hopes to create an “endemic” COVID-19 plan for the district. Endemic refers to when an infectious disease is spreading at predictable, low rates. Cardon hopes the district solicits feedback from parents, students and staff as they develop the plan.

Kyle Pfannenstiel

About Kyle Pfannenstiel

Reporter Kyle Pfannenstiel covers the implementation of policy in Idaho’s K-12 public school system. He’s a military brat and former health care reporter who holds degrees in Journalism and Political Science from University of Idaho. Follow Kyle on Twitter @pfannyyy. He can be reached at [email protected]

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