Boise School District students will start the year virtually, trustees voted unanimously Tuesday night, locking down a back-to-school plan after a tumultuous summer.
The decision comes one day after the local health district put West Ada, Boise and Kuna school districts in the highest category of coronavirus risk and transmission, a designation that suggests school buildings close and districts adopt full-time distance learning.
Board chair Nancy Gregory called the decision a choice “that has split our community.”
“Pleasing everybody is going to be impossible,” Gregory said. “But finding a path forward is possible, and if we move forward positively, virtual and online can work.”
The vote means students will learn from home from Aug. 17 through at least Sept. 8. Each student will have access to a device for online learning and families should expect more instructions from the school district in coming days. Teachers are expected to report to buildings to work unless they have special accommodations.
Superintendent Coby Dennis suggested the board continue to meet each week in order to evaluate community spread of the coronavirus, and hopefully plan to reopen once Central District Health downgrades Boise schools from a Category 3 risk level to Category 2.
The district will also suspend extracurricular activities until the district is in a lower-risk category. Boise athletic teams will follow the guidance of the Southern Idaho Conference. Right now, Dennis said the SIC plans to postpone the start of sports practices from Aug. 10 to Aug. 17. SIC superintendents will continue meeting to evaluate whether sports competitions are safe.
The district’s virtual-learning plan is not identical to the Boise Online School. Students who learn virtually will be expected to return to school buildings once the district reopens school buildings.
About 4,000 of the district’s 25,000 students signed up for the online school as of Tuesday. Families have until noon Friday to enroll in that option.
Board members received more than 800 written comments prior to Tuesday’s meeting, Dennis said. They were almost perfectly split down the middle on the reopening question: 432 parents in favor of in-person classes, compared to 430 in favor of distance learning.
“Every time we got an email saying ‘you need to close,’ we got one that said, ‘You need to open,'” Dennis said.
The 44 public comments during Tuesday’s four-hour board meeting reflected that divide.
Working parents recounted struggles with online learning in the spring and urged trustees to consider their challenges. Parent Kayla Groat said her family gave up two days into online learning this spring because it was impossible for her to work a full-time job from home, while also being “three separate teachers for three separate children.”
“The most important things to me are that my children and my family have financial stability and well being,” Groat said. “My kids didn’t get an education in the spring because I couldn’t provide them both.”
Parents suggested trustees consider opening a few schools for in-person learning for low-risk families, or delay school entirely until it is safe for students to return in-person. Others reminded trustees of the additional barriers facing students with special needs or language barriers, and the emotional risk of students isolated from peers and the school support structure.
Families who had experienced COVID-19 firsthand implored the district to keep its doors closed until the risk abates.
Veronica Richmond, a rising senior, told trustees that she and her sister contracted COVID-19 during the spring, while schools were still open. The girls are proof that young people can get the virus, and suffer from it, she said. Their mother, Jamie Richmond, said her daughters had “immense fatigue,” cognitive issues, couldn’t walk and have signs of long-term immune issues because of the virus.
“Nobody can convince me that in-person schooling is worth a single life lost,” Veronica Richmond told the board. “… Let’s live through this, and then enjoy in-person schooling.”
As board members voted to start the year online, they implored community members to help curb the virus so kids can go back to school.
“There are no winners tonight,” trustee Troy Rohn said before the vote.
“I take my responsibilities as a trustee very seriously. And one of those responsibilities is the safety of our students and our staff. Even if one teacher … contracted COVID and died, that would be on me for the rest of my life. I’m not ready to take that risk. I think the risk is way too high right now. We as a community need to get the numbers down. That’s all of our responsibility so that we can open our schools safely.”