Most big districts returning to in-person learning

Students in many of Idaho’s largest school districts are returning to school buildings in March, after months of learning remotely or through hybrid instruction models.

Districts across Idaho moved to distance learning ahead of the holidays to help curb the spread if COVID-19. But as county coronavirus risk levels continue to improve across Idaho, more school boards are reopening buildings.

Here’s a closer look at the latest changes in Idaho’s largest school districts.

Blaine County 

All students in Blaine County School District are back in class.

On Jan. 27, trustees voted to have elementary students return to classes in four-day weeks starting on Feb. 8. On Feb. 16, the board returned and voted to have secondary students do the same starting on March 8.

Boise

On Feb. 18, Boise trustees voted unanimously to have students return to classrooms full time.

  • Elementary students will return on March 9.
  • Secondary students will return on March 29.
  • Pre-K students were able to return to classrooms on Feb. 23 because with smaller numbers they can social distance.

The March 9 date allows the district time to give all staff members the option to be immunized for COVID-19 and also lines up with the kindergarten registration deadline (March 8). Starting middle and high school students on March 29 lines up with the start of the fourth quarter.

Classes will be in session five days per week and the district is requiring face coverings, physical distancing, contact tracing and environmental cleanliness. The mask mandate includes those who have received the COVID-19 vaccination.

The Boise school board is has its monthly meeting scheduled for Monday, March 8, with “reopening update” report listed on its agenda.

Bonneville

East Idaho’s largest district will maintain its current schedule of a mostly in-person learning model, but trustees voted to nix the district’s mask requirement.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Superintendent Scott Woolstenhulme told EdNews, adding that wearing masks is still strongly encouraged.

Bonneville County last week lifted its mask mandate, prompting the district to consider doing the same.

The decision to follow suit followed a lengthy discussion on the effectiveness of masks. Trustees ultimately voted 3-1 to a motion to scrap the requirement. Trustee Greg Calder cast the only opposing vote. The change goes into effect March 8.

Caldwell

Joining their elementary-aged peers, secondary students in Caldwell School District will return to classes in-person starting March 29. On March 1, trustees voted unanimously to have sixth grade through 12th grade return to classes four days a week, with Wednesdays designated for remote coursework.

During the meeting, trustees met with high school principal Anita Wilson, who said the school will not be able to physically distance all of its students. Will added that Caldwell High does not have any windows that can open to help ventilation.

Students attending school in-person will have to wear masks and physically distance when possible. The district is also requiring hand washing an has ramped up cleaning protocols.

“Returning to more in-person learning is possible because the spread of the virus has receded,” said Shalene French, Caldwell School District Superintendent.

The Board voted on Feb. 15 to bring elementary students back in person four days a week starting March 29.

The school district sent surveys to parents, students and staff members to gauge their opinions on reopening. While the majority of parents at elementary, middle and high school levels said they were “very comfortable” with reopening, student opinion varied. Elementary school students were the most enthusiastic about returning to four-days in-person, with 42 percent saying that would make them “very happy.” Only nine percent of middle schoolers said they’d be “very happy,” about returning four  days a week and about 20 percent of high school students felt that way.

Find those surveys here.

Coeur d’Alene

During a Feb. 25 meeting, Coeur d’Alene trustees unanimously voted to have the school week return to a complete five days. Coeur d’Alene schools have been teaching four days per week, with Wednesdays used to clean facilities.

The board did not take any action on the current mask requirements in the district.

Fruitland

On Tuessday, trustees voted to bring Fruitland back to full five-day school weeks. The district has been in four-day weeks since October. The change will start on March 3, following spring break.

When the five-day week starts, there will no longer be any online options for Fruitland students. The mask mandate will stay in effect.

Idaho Falls

Idaho Falls trustees voted unanimously on Feb. 23 to let students learn in-person five days a week starting March 8.

The change to a “new normal” instruction model includes “reasonable procedures in accordance with health guidance,” including a mask mandate for students when social distancing is not possible.

While trustees spent a few minutes discussing a shift back to in-person learning, debate over masks dominated the conversation — and grew tense.

“Don’t interrupt me, Paul,” trustee Elizabeth Cogliati told fellow trustee Paul Haacke during a discussion phase of the meeting.

Haacke spoke against continuing the district’s mask mandate. He cited decreasing cases of COVID-19 in nearby districts that haven’t required masks and pointed to the recent lifting of a local mask mandate.

“How does (the Madison School District) not have spikes (in cases)?” Haacke asked.

Board chair Lara Hill questioned the comparison, arguing that local districts have different student populations and facilities equipped to allow for social distancing.

Trustee Larry Wilson pointed to consensus among local educators, claiming that a “high 90 percent” of administrators he talked to in the district want to continue a mask mandate.

In the end, Haacke cast the only vote to do away with the district’s mask mandate.

Kuna

Students in Kuna School District will soon be able to return to classrooms, the Idaho Press reported.

Starting on April 5, secondary students will have in-person learning available, following a vote by trustees on Tuesday night. This follows a Feb. 9 meeting, where the board voted 3-2 to keep the district’s 6-12 graders in hybrid education while elementary schoolers are fully in-person. Students will still have the option to learn via a hybrid model.

Also on Tuesday, trustees received a presentation from a task force which investigated best practices for the district’s educational model.

The task force consisted of four parents (two from the middle school and two from the high school), four teachers (one each from Kuna Middle, Fremont Middle, Kuna High and Swan Falls High), a secondary coordinator, a middle school coordinator, an elementary coordinator, Shelly Hopkins (Kuna Education Association President), Hunter Warnick (Kuna’s ASB President), and will be facilitated by Superintendent Wendy Johnson and Assistant Superintendent of Student Learning Services Kim Bekkedahl.

Nampa

Trustees voted to move secondary students back into buildings four days a week, starting March 29. Elementary school students in Nampa have been in buildings full-time since January.

Trustee Kim Rost raised some discussion about returning to schools for a more full-time learning model in the beginning of March, instead of waiting until after spring break.

“The further we delay this and keep pushing it just causes me pause and makes me concerned for all those families that continue to reach out, and ask us to listen. To hear them,” Rost said.

Ultimately trustees approved the March 29th date for a nearly full-time return, because March 29 marks the start of a new quarter, the delay allows teachers more time to reach vaccine immunity, and it gives the district extra time to hire more staff for its short-handed nutrition department. 

Pocatello-Chubbuck

The Pocatello-Chubbuck School District returned students for in-person education on March 1.

Trustees voted during a special board meeting Tuesday to scrap a hybrid instructional model for students in the district’s secondary schools. The decision allows the district’s middle school and high school students to rejoin its elementary students in attending school in-person five days a week, with heightened cleaning and safety protocols — including a mask requirement — in place.

“If (students) really want to be in school, then wear a mask — teachers too,” trustee Jackie Cranor said.

Debates over letting kids return full-time have grown fierce. Months of hybrid learning in Pocatello-Chubbuck fueled a recall effort against trustees Dave Mattson, Jackie Cranor and Janie Gebhardt. County officials in December certified petitions to have the board members recalled.

Tuesday’s decision followed nearly 187 emails from parents, students and staff regarding the prospect of letting students return in full. Ninety-seven of those emails called for a full return to face-to-face learning, administrators said. Seventy-three wrote in favor of continuing the current learning model.

The decision also followed an update to the board that documented cases in the district are down to nine among staff and seven among students.

More than 800 Pocatello-Chubbuck staff members have received a first dose of the coronavirus vaccine, administrators added.

Twin Falls

The Twin Falls school board voted in December to bring students back to school four days a week in 2021. On Feb. 8, they bumped that up to nearly full-time in-person learning, adding an extra half-day to the in-person schedule.

Starting on March 8, students will be in school for a half-day on Mondays, then full-length school days Tuesday through Friday.

Vallivue

As of March 16, the beginning of the fourth quarter, students in Vallivue are back in classes, with Mondays held virtually and students in classrooms from Tuesday through Friday.

West Ada

Students in the state’s largest school district will be returning to classes in-person, but four days a week, starting March 30. Trustees voted on Feb. 9 to accept the recommendation from the middle and high school reopening committees, which would return students to classes if two criteria have been met:

  • All West Ada staff have been given the opportunity to receive both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine and the additional two weeks after the second dose to reach peak immune response.
  • Student/staff percent positivity rate remains below 2 percent for two consecutive weeks.

Vaccinations were first made available to West Ada staff on Jan. 16. The committee agreed that all staff in West Ada should have the opportunity to receive both doses of the vaccine by March 13.

The motion to start on March 29 (with the first day back being March 30) was made by new board member Rusty Coffelt and passed with a 4-1 vote (Ed Klopfenstein voted against it).

The change to a four-day, in-person school week leaves Mondays as a remote learning day, which schools will use for contact tracing purposes.

Idaho Education News reporters Nik Streng and Sami Edge contributed to this story.

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. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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