This week, Gov. Brad Little and the State Board of Education tried to plot out the road to a life after shutdowns.
And it’s a long and uncertain course.
The reckoning — the implications of allowing coronavirus to circulate across the state unimpeded — forced difficult but swift decisions. Little issued a dramatic statewide stay-at-home order, extended Wednesday. The State Board ordered a closure of Idaho’s K-12 schools, a shutdown that remains in place.
Reopening will also be difficult. And it isn’t going to be swift.
Little’s extended stay-at-home order, running through April 30, spells out a few small steps to reopen the economy. Some businesses, previously deemed “nonessential,” will be able to reopen for curbside or delivery service. (This could allow flower shops and jewelers to get back to business— so even in public policy, there’s a place for romance.)
More significantly, Little talked Wednesday about a transition that will allow more businesses to reopen in May. Businesses would need to meet several conditions, such as maintaining social distancing onsite, limiting the number of customers and providing adequate protective coverings and sanitation.
Wednesday’s announcement came in the midst of a whirlwind of science and politics.
Over three weeks, Little’s stay-at-home order appears to have helped slow the spread of coronavirus. Idaho’s limited testing continues to uncover new cases every day, but that rate of increase has tapered considerably. State leaders worry about rolling back restrictions too quickly, providing an opening for a second wave of cases. But they have also gone out of their way to praise Idahoans for making tough choices, for staying at home and practicing social distancing.
Yet Little has run into pushback from increasingly impatient (and prominent) members of his own political party. State GOP chairman Raul Labrador — who ran against Little in the 2018 gubernatorial primary — urged his former adversary to consider “a complete analysis of the costs to our society and not just COVID-19 models.” As James Dawson of Boise State Public Radio reported Tuesday, House Speaker Scott Bedke didn’t merely urge Little to stand down; he issued a threat. “The way you exercise legislative powers now will affect how the Legislature views those powers when it next convenes,” Bedke wrote.
So Little had a lot on his plate for a 40-minute presser Wednesday. He laid out what his office called a “path to prosperity.” He tried to reassure and rally an antsy audience. When asked, he pushed back a bit against Bedke and other critics in the Legislature.
“I always take their advice and counsel, but I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do.”
The political stakes weren’t as high Thursday morning, when the State Board revisited a “soft closure” that could keep kids out of schools for the rest of the academic year. But the practical obstacles to reopening commerce also apply to reopening classrooms.
The board endorsed what Little education adviser Greg Wilson called “a clear process for moving out of a soft closure into normal operations.” While clear, the process is also daunting. Even if local school officials want to reopen, the State Board’s conditions could prove prohibitive.
All state and local social distancing guidelines must be lifted before a school can reopen. In areas with “community spread” of coronavirus, school administrators will have to wait for the local infection rate to peak — and then drop, for at least 14 days. Only then could local health officials and school trustees agree on a reopening.
None of this will happen quickly. And as State Board member Kurt Liebich suggested Thursday, social distancing guidelines could well remain in place until scientists develop a coronavirus vaccine — something that could take 12 to 18 months.
If so, that doesn’t just rule out reopening schools this academic year. It could leave the 2020-21 school year in limbo.
For 300,000 students, the abrupt shift into remote learning is likely to continue indefinitely, with thousands of teachers and administrators engineering the program on the fly.
But for now, the flashpoint in the debate is the economy, fueled by a rapid erosion of jobs. Another 18,531 Idahoans filed unemployment claims last week, bringing the four-week job losses to a jaw-dropping 95,961. Here as well, a restart will take time, as Little said Wednesday.
And there’s one final common thread: the public’s comfort level, in uncomfortable times.
The State Board’s school reopening guidelines will require local officials to come up with a forgiving absentee policy — for staffers at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, and for parents who don’t want to send their kids back to school.
As Little expressed his desire to reopen the economy Wednesday, he remained mindful of the coronavirus realities. Testing capacity is limited. Therapeutics are in development. A vaccine is months away. All of this demands caution.
“A robust economic recovery will require citizen and consumer confidence.”
The slow reopen will be a milestone on a long road back to normal.
Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for it every Thursday.