Analysis: The school year gets off to a chaotic start, but that was the plan

Idaho’s fall school reopening is a chaotic thing — by design.

Just look at Ada County. The county’s coronavirus case numbers are finally showing signs of slowing, but the Central District Health department has recommended online-only classes. Boise followed that guidance when it opened on Aug. 17. West Ada will do likewise when it opens next week. But on the southern edge of Ada County, Kuna opened Monday with a blend of face-to-face and online learning — CDH’s recommendation notwithstanding.

This is exactly what state leaders want. It’s exactly what Gov. Brad Little and his State Board of Education had in mind this summer, when they crafted a reopening plan that put school districts in charge of decision-making.

The process is inherently messy. Plans will differ from community to community, as they do now in Ada County. Plans could change on a weekly basis, depending on coronavirus infection rates and guidance from the health districts.

The process is also inherently Idaho. It’s predicated on local control — one of those touchstone values Idaho politicos love to extol at every opportunity.

Rep. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls

“I’m comfortable with allowing the school districts to make their best judgment call,” said House Education Committee Chairman Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls.

To be fair, Idaho politicos don’t just talk about local control in the schools. In many cases, they have delegated key decisions to the local level. They expect school boards to negotiate local labor agreements and draw up the teacher salary schedule that makes up a district’s largest budget line item. They allow local districts to choose a curriculum and purchase textbooks — an important fact to remember when you hear critics bemoan “top-down” Common Core math and English standards or state science standards.

Now, local control is being put to the test during a public health crisis. A choice of textbooks doesn’t affect people in a neighboring district. A coronavirus reopening plan can, since school employees often live in neighboring communities. And in Ada County — where the Boise, West Ada and Kuna school districts more or less bleed together in a sprawl of more than 400,000 residents and 70,000 K-12 students — there’s no such thing as an isolated school.

When the State Board closed Idaho schools this spring, the decision mirrored statewide closures from coast to coast. Idaho’s localized approach to the fall isn’t unique either. According to Education Week, only 14 states and the District of Columbia have statewide policies in place — school shutdowns, limitations on in-person learning or orders that mandate open schools. The remaining states, like Idaho, leave the decisions to local school districts or local health authorities.

Ada County’s situation “could be interpreted as an inconsistency,” Gov. Brad Little said Thursday. But he said he wants school opening decisions to reflect the realities of the pandemic — which can vary from community to community, and from building to building. “A statewide solution really doesn’t address boots on the ground.”

When Little assembled a task force to spend part of the summer looking at school reopening issues, it became clear that the state was not going to dictate top-down policy. It became a question, then, of which local agency would be in charge. Many school officials clamored for the chance to make reopening decisions, and some bristled at the idea of needing permission from health districts.

Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise

 

In winning the turf war for the fall, school administrators have also won the ear of many key legislators, who want school districts — and not health districts — in charge of school closure decisions in the future. Clow supports the idea and expects it to come up in 2021. House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel says she has no problem with letting school boards make reopening decisions, but sees no need for legislation bashing health districts. “I think people are lashing out and looking for someone to punish,” said Rubel, D-Boise.

That’s a debate for 2021. For now, having gotten the decision-making authority they asked for, school officials now find themselves in an uncomfortable spotlight.

The everyday voter might not care too much about trustee elections — witness Tuesday’s Boise trustee elections, which drew a 6 percent turnout that actually marked an improvement from 2018. But make no mistake. Parents care about whether their schools are open. And this week, protesters showed up at West Ada and Nampa district offices, demanding schools reopen and sports practices resume. The emotions spilled over into trustee meetings, including a Nampa board meeting that stretched across two nights.

In Kuna, the process stretched on for weeks. The school board approved a reopening plan on June 30 — before case numbers spiked in Ada County, and before Little’s task force completed the back-to-school guidelines. Superintendent Wendy Johnson recommended that Kuna start the school year with hybrid learning, after CDH officials told her Ada County’s case numbers would probably taper off in August, allowing the health district to sign off on a hybrid model. The school board approved a hybrid model on July 28 — but now, five weeks later, CDH is still only recommending online instruction in Ada County.

The politics might be different in smaller communities, but that doesn’t mean small-town elected trustees are off the hook, said Stephanie Witt, a political science professor at Boise State University. Rural patrons might not consider the coronavirus a threat — believing, falsely, that small towns are insulated from outbreaks. In small towns that skew conservative, patrons are more likely to push back against closing schools, or requiring students to wear masks in school.

And to complicate matters further, rural patrons are passionate about their schools. Witt learned this firsthand when she conducted research on Clark County, Nev., home to Las Vegas, and Clark County, Idaho, home to, well, about 850 people. She heard a repeated refrain from the Clark County, Idaho residents: Losing the school would be the deathknell of the community.

“That sense of the community and school,” she said. “It’s all wrapped together.”

For the record, schools in Idaho’s Clark County are open for face-to-face learning — despite 21 coronavirus cases in the rural county, an infection rate that even exceeds Ada County.

No, it’s not consistent.

But that’s the plan.

Get the latest: Idaho school reopening plans are all over the map — and our up-to-date statewide map lets you see what’s happening in your community.

Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for it every Thursday.

 

Kevin Richert

About Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on KIVI 6 On Your Side; "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television; and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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