Educators continue in-person instruction amid COVID surge

Most of Idaho’s school districts and charter schools are still operating fully in person as a deadly second wave of COVID-19 washes over the state, including in communities hit hardest by the disease.

“We believe that in-classroom instruction with a caring, certified teacher remains the most effective learning model for our students,” said Madison School District Superintendent Geoff Thomas.

Eastern Idaho Public Health has put Madison County at a “critical” risk level for spreading COVID-19 — the department’s most stringent designation. The New York Times last month placed the county’s seat, Rexburg, atop a national list of metro areas hit hardest by the disease.

Yet Madison and K-12 schools in other high-spread communities have the authority to keep kids in the classroom full time. And they’ve received the blessing of top state leaders.

On Nov. 13, Gov. Brad Little repeatedly encouraged schools to offer in-person learning, noting that schools are a safer, more controlled environment than the community at large. The governor and the State Board of Education have turned over decisionmaking authority on how and when to open schools to local school boards.

Other top leaders Friday issued a joint statement echoing Little’s position.

“We are advised and consistently reminded that schools are not the problem,” they wrote, adding that Idaho’s schools aren’t “super spreaders” of COVID-19.

Meanwhile, at least some schools in every region of the state have continued in-person teaching and learning, including dozens in critical-risk communities. (Check our daily-updated map of operational plans of all schools compared to county risk levels.)

K-12 leaders in these high-spread areas point to a variety of reasons for forging ahead, from community consensus that kids should be in school to doubts over how much their schools contribute to spreading the disease.

“School is not the place where we are finding community spread,” Thomas told EdNews.

In-person learning amid a renewed surge

Idaho has experienced sharp increases in confirmed cases of COVID-19 in recent weeks. The state reported a record 1,781 cases and 38 deaths from the disease Tuesday — more than twice the single-day peak of 16 reported deaths on Nov. 7. As of Friday, case numbers and deaths had continued to rise.

Yet at least 107 of 168 brick-and-mortar school districts and charters are still allowing students to learn fully in person, according to numbers EdNews has compiled and regularly updated during the pandemic.

Some other notable trends:

  • K-12 leaders in 57 districts and charters have adopted partially at-home learning models in recent months. This includes Idaho’s 13 largest school districts, which together serve about 170,000 of the state’s roughly 300,000 public K-12 students. (All but one school in Ada County — Rolling Hills Charter — has moved to either full or partial remote learning.)
  • With local confirmed cases on the rise, the Boise and Caldwell school districts will move to fully remote learning models after Thanksgiving break.
  • Just two districts — Weiser and Teton County — have currently enforced temporary building closures due to surges in local case numbers. And only two charter schools — Pathways In Education and Vision Charter — have moved all teaching and learning online.
  • At least 43 of the 107 district and charters offering fully in-person learning are doing it in areas designated as highest risk for community spread by their local health departments.

‘Our kids need to be in school’

Like Thomas, Blackfoot School District Superintendent Brian Kress stressed the importance of in-person learning amid the lingering health crisis.

“Our kids need to be in school, and our teachers want to be there,” he wrote on Facebook last month, after patrons pushed back on a decision to move classes to a partial at-home learning model.

Blackfoot hasn’t yet reached its health districts’ highest threat level for community spread, but increased cases prompted trustees to shift schools to partial at-home model in September.

Families pushed back. According to the district, 78 percent of some 1,000 parents surveyed said trustees should revise the district’s coronavirus response plan.

Two weeks after the shift, kids were back in their classrooms full time. And it’s stayed that way ever since, even after Southeastern Idaho Public Health placed Bingham County in a high-risk category for community spread.

Community consensus has factored into Madison’s quest to keep schools open amid the surge.

“Overwhelmingly, parents have opted to send their children to school for in classroom instruction,” Thomas told EdNews.

Madison’s leaders have repeatedly pointed to the number of confirmed cases in their schools as another justification for continuing in-person teaching and learning amid a surge of local coronavirus cases. Of Madison’s 5,435 students, the district reports, 29 accounted for new and active cases in the community as of Nov. 17. Out of 707 staff members, the number was 23.

These numbers climbed from 21 confirmed cases and two confirmed cases among students and staff, respectively, from the prior week, according to the district’s own tally. That increase accompanies a sharp rise in confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Idaho’s K-12 schools from last week.

Other local K-12 leaders emphasize perceived gaps between the number of cases among students and staff and those in their broader communities.

“We have  experienced very, very few active cases this year,” said Superintendent Chester Bradshaw, whose Sugar-Salem School District boarders Madison. “We will continue in a face to face environment until our own experiences require us to make some adjustments.”

A mixture of parental feedback and the belief that kids learn best in person has fueled Minidoka County School District, despite a critical threat level for local spread.

“(S)urvey results showed overwhelmingly that our community wanted their children back in school in person,” Minidoka’s director of student achievement, Ashley Johnson, told EdNews, adding that the “school board and administration (also) believe the best place for students to learn is in our classrooms.”

EdNews data analyst Randy Schrader contributed to this report. 

Devin Bodkin

About Devin Bodkin

Reporter Devin Bodkin covers education issues in East Idaho. He is a former high school English teacher who specializes in stories about charter schools and educating students who live in poverty. He is a 2019 Solutions Journalism Network fellow and the Idaho Press Club's 2019 print reporter of the year. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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