Little pushes for safety as schools face reopening challenges

Gov. Brad Little addresses the media at a June 5 news conference. File photo by Sami Edge/Idaho EdNews.

On Friday, Gov. Brad Little acknowledged the challenges schools, students and families have experienced this week with fall reopening.

Those challenges include staffing and substitute teaching concerns, delayed computer deliveries, scarcity of basic supplies such as sanitizing wipes, and coronavirus quarantines involving teachers and an entire football team.

“There is a lot of uncertainty to this,” Little said during a news conference Friday. “I think the answer (to how reopening is going) is it depends. … “We’ve seen school districts say, ‘we’re going to open,’ and then this morning say, ‘Well, we’re not, for some reason.’”

Little said he has met with teachers in Lewiston, Sugar City and Rexburg to discuss reopening issues.

“Every single educator I talked to wants to be back in the classroom, but a lot of them have a legitimate concern,” Little said.

Most Idaho public schools closed on short notice during the early days of the pandemic in March. Since then, Little and the State Board of Education have set a statewide expectation for schools to reopen in person.

On Friday, Little emphasized that returning to school and in-person education are ways to combat learning loss and achievement gaps, which may be intensified during the pandemic.

“I want schools to open but I also want to keep staff, students and the community safe,” Little said.

State epidemiologist Dr. Christine Hahn said officials are meeting with school leaders to discuss how to handle notification of positive cases in schools. Hahn said the state wants to be transparent and give parents access to information, but there are privacy considerations to balance as well.

One challenge is that some schools have already opened.

“I wish we were ahead of where we are at but we are still trying to sort that out,” Hahn said.

Special session preview

Looking ahead to Monday’s special legislative session, Little suggested there could be more support to change election laws to safeguard voters and poll workers, as opposed to a bill to extend civil liability protections during an emergency.

“That one is going to be a little more interesting as the debate takes place,” Little said.

When asked how long the session would last, Little gave a short but uncertain answer. “Long enough.”

Earlier this week, Little issued a proclamation officially convening an extraordinary legislative session.

School leaders will be paying close attention to the liability proposal. Administrators have said insurance carriers told them they likely will not cover costs if someone catches COVID-19 at a school and sues.

Finally, Little announced Idaho will remain in Stage 4 of its four-stage coronavirus reopening plan for at least another two weeks. The number of confirmed and suspected COVID-19 patients who were hospitalized exceeds the state threshold, Little said.

However, Little said Idaho is seeing a downward trend in overall confirmed cases, the percent of positive tests and emergency room visits.

“This demonstrates that our efforts to preserve the health care capacity and slow the spread of coronavirus that those efforts are all working,” Little said.

However, he emphasized the pandemic is not under control. Canyon, Ada, Kootenai, Bonneville and Twin Falls remain coronavirus hot spots.

“The numbers are getting better but not nearly at the rate we would all like to see it,” Little said.

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