School leaders in Idaho — and around the nation — are juggling personal choice and student safety as school begins and the pandemic continues its seven-week surge.
The number of Idaho school districts and charters that have decided to require students and staff to wear face coverings has ticked up to at least 13. Nationwide, two-thirds of the 100 largest schools districts are requiring masks, according to national news organization Chalkbeat.
Other states and metro areas are taking safety matters to an even higher level. New York City, Denver and Chicago, and neighboring states Oregon and Washington, are requiring staff to be vaccinated, Chalkbeat reports. California, Hawaii and New Jersey are telling school staff that if they are not vaccinated, they will be tested weekly for COVID-19.
Some Idaho businesses are requiring employees to get vaccinated, including Idaho’s largest hospital systems — Saint Alphonsus and St. Luke’s Health System. Idahoans who are members of the U.S. military also will be required to get vaccinated. The Pentagon announced in August that all military personnel must be vaccinated by mid-September.
But Gov. Brad Little isn’t requiring vaccinations, leaving the decision to local government and school officials, though he has urged all eligible Idahoans to get vaccinated. For schools, he recently pledged $30 million from state coronavirus relief funds for COVID-19 testing.
Most school trustees are continuing to discuss safety options. West Ada trustees voted 3-2 on Tuesday to require masks for all staff. Students can opt out of wearing a mask with a permission slip from a parent.
The motion came at the end of a five and a half hour meeting that saw hundreds of district patrons crowd the auditorium. The board was met with mixed reaction from attendees.
“I’m grateful for the outcome. Ultimately, I believe the parents of the community were heard,” said Jared Lucas, a West Ada parent who was representing the Rally to Open West Ada Schools Facebook group. Lucas added that he was disappointed that this meeting took place just two days before the start of the school year.
The auditorium was awash with color. Dozens of pro-mask patrons wore light blue to voice their stance, in opposition to the hundreds of yellow-shirted patrons against a mask mandate.
“A mask mandate with an opt-out is not a mandate,” said Josh Jaco, who has two children in West Ada schools.
Caldwell trustees decided on Monday to keep masks optional but recommended. Less than 24 hours later, the district announced temporary mask mandates at particular schools.
Caldwell High School, Lincoln Elementary School and Washington Elementary School students and staff will be required to wear masks through September 3, district spokeswoman Jessica Watts said in an email.
Caldwell High had 12 cases of COVID-19 as of Monday night’s board meeting, and superintendent Shalene French said school staff are estimating about one-third of Caldwell High students, and only a few of the teachers, had been wearing masks at school.
“We’ve had quite the weekend,” French said. “The numbers have gone up already.”
Also on Monday, a student at Caldwell’s Lincoln Elementary tested positive for COVID-19, resulting in 14 quarantines among the school’s first graders.
Watts said that district staff are monitoring the level of absences at the schools, and that the COVID-19 response plan allows administrators to determine next steps if the number of absences is higher than 10%. District and school administrators met on Tuesday, Watts said, and decided to implement temporary mask mandates at the three schools. Masks are still recommended at other campus locations.
McCall-Donnelly trustees also met on Tuesday night and voted to continue with a mask-optional policy for now.
The discussion of mask mandates in schools has not been without its pushback. Parents and district patrons are regular visitors to West Ada and Boise board meetings, often wearing yellow to support a mask-optional policy.
About half (47%) of eligible Idahoans have been fully vaccinated, but the numbers drop with the age of those still in school:
- 12-15 years old: 19% vaccinated
- 16-17 years old: 28% vaccinated
- 18-24 years old: 35% vaccinated
West Ada and Boise, Idaho’s largest districts, are not tracking COVID-19 vaccinations among students or teachers, something that Boise parent Dale Keys finds troubling. “It just seems like a no-brainer to me,” said Keys, whose son is not old enough to be vaccinated.
The Idaho Education Association is urging school boards to make masks mandatory, but is not asking for proof of vaccination among teachers, according to a statement sent to Idaho Education News.
As of Tuesday, at least these 13 Idaho school districts are requiring masks for now. Here’s details on the recent decisions:
- Anser Charter: Board members met on Aug. 17 to approve the Garden City-based charter’s reopening plan, which includes a mask mandate for all students and staff while indoors. When there is no community transmission, unvaccinated students at Anser will still be required to wear a mask until 80% of the student body has been vaccinated. All unvaccinated staff will also be required to wear a mask. The 2021-2022 school year will start on Sept. 7.
- Blaine County: The board met on Aug. 19 and approved Blaine County School District’s Safe Return to School policy, which includes when masks will be required. The district will be using the CDC’s COVID-19 Data Tracker and masks will only be optional when Blaine County is in the blue (low transmission) category. Currently, Blaine County is in the orange (substantial) category.
- Boise: Trustees in Boise met in special session on Aug. 3 to reinstate the mask mandate. The new school year started for Boise students on Aug. 16.
- Chief Tahgee Elementary Academy: The board met on Aug. 17 to approve the school’s COVID-19 safety plan. The Pocatello-based charter started the school year on Aug. 23.
- Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy: The charter board met on Aug. 23 to approve the school’s COVID-19 response plan for the year. The first day of school is set for Aug. 30.
- Forge International & Sage International of Boise: On Aug. 5, Executive Director Andy Johnson sent a statement to parents saying that all students and staff at both campuses will be required to wear a face covering until conditions regarding the spread of COVID-19 change. Both Treasure Valley charter schools have been in school since Aug. 9.
- Future Public: The Boise-based charter’s return to schools guide says that all students and staff will be required to wear masks. The first day of school will be Sept. 1.
- Meridian Medical Arts Charter: The charter’s building health and safety plan lists masks as required for all students. The first day of school will be on Aug. 26.
- Moscow: Moscow trustees met on July 28 and voted to require masks for at least the first three weeks of the school year. The school year begins on Sept. 1 and the mask requirement expires on Sept. 22. The city of Moscow is also requiring masks while indoors.
- Moscow Charter: The charter’s board met on Aug. 10, approving the Fall 2021 reopening plan which included a mask mandate. The first day of school will be Sept. 1.
- Rolling Hills Charter: On Aug. 12, the school board approved the charter’s COVID-19 Plan, which includes a mask mandate when Ada County is in the orange (substantial) or red (high) levels of community transmission per the CDC’s data tracker. The first day of school will be Aug. 25.
- West Ada: Tuesday night, the board voted 3-2 to enacted a mask mandate, with the option for parents to opt their children out.
At Kuna-based Project Impact STEM Academy, masks are required during transitional periods, but are optional when students are in classrooms.
Idaho Education News data analyst Randy Schrader contributed to this report.