ISBA director urges school boards to follow public health guidance

The executive director of the Idaho School Boards Association cautioned Tuesday that trustees could be vulnerable to lawsuits if they disregard guidance from local public health districts.

With the coronavirus continuing to spread across Idaho and the beginning of the school year just days away, liability and lawsuits are a concern for school officials.

Gov. Brad Little has said civil liability protection is likely to be addressed during a special session of the Legislature he will call the week of Aug. 24.

But ISBA Executive Director Karen Echeverria told school board members during a Tuesday webinar that doesn’t mean the liability protection will be absolute and schools are free to operate without fear of being sued.

Karen Echeverria

Echeverria said every legislative liability proposal she’s seen still requires school officials to act prudently and prevents them from being willful or reckless in their actions. In that regard, Echeverria encouraged them to consider all recommendations issued by health districts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“If you are ignoring those and doing something different, you put yourself at greater risk to lose your immunity that may be granted by the Legislature,” Echeverria said.

Echeverria stepped in after an unidentified webinar participant asked if school boards could change the metrics and recommendations issued by a health district to fit their community.

The exchange was part of a larger ISBA discussion about public health guidance and coronavirus data. Public health directors and public health school liaisons from across the state joined the ISBA webinar to talk about the role they play in reopening.

Central District Health Director Russ Duke said public health officials play two main roles:

  • To designate community spread in an area.
  • To advise schools on their operational plans.

During the webinar, health officials said there are two reasons they would recommend closing a school:

  • If there is widespread community transmission, as there is in Ada County, with massive amounts of transmission, multiple clusters, delays in testing and more.
  • If there is an exposure at a specific school where the risk was not minimized through practices such as social distancing or wearing masks, leading to an unknown number of people likely being exposed to the virus.

As public health officials shared their metrics and decision-making, it became clear that different areas of the state have different classification systems.

Some areas, such as the four counties served by Central District Health, have three coronavirus risk categories that align with the reopening guidance issued by Little and the State Board of Education.

But in neighboring counties served by Southwest District Health, there are four categories, which officials “cross walked” to align with the three categories from the  state’s reopening plan.

So depending on where Idahoans live, the categories may be numbers, they may be red, yellow and green or they may be gray, yellow and orange.

Echeverria noticed this and pointed out the situation can be even more complicated. School district boundaries don’t always align with health district boundaries.

In the end, Southeaster Idaho Public Health Director Maggie Mann said health officials have the same goals regardless of the classification system and they don’t see themselves unilaterally forcing a school to close. Instead, they envision themselves in an advisory role.

“So we would work with school superintendents and school boards to help them make the best decision for their jurisdiction that they can make to minimize the impact to educational opportunities while at the same time maximizing the health and safety of their students and staff and faculty.”

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