White House coronavirus task force recommends moving some Idaho schools online

A weekly White House COVID-19 report released Sunday recommends Idaho schools move to online classes in areas with high test rates among school-aged children and college students.

The report, published online by reporter Liz Whyte of the Center for Public Integrity, says increasing case counts among 12- to 17-year-olds in 10 Idaho counties “suggests outbreaks in those counties may be related to school openings.” It also says the test positivity rate is high among 18- to 24-year-olds in Latah, Madison, Ada and Bannock counties, which house Idaho universities.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Brad Little confirmed Thursday that he received the report and shared it with the state’s regional health districts.

“Gov. Little and the Governor’s Coronavirus Working Group are continuously evaluating recommendations from a number of sources regarding Idaho’s COVID-19 response,” spokeswoman Marissa Morrison Hyer said Thursday.

Idaho leans heavily on a local-control framework for school governance. The State Board of Education has issued recommendations for how schools navigate the pandemic. But local school boards remain in control of decisions about school closures and COVID-19 safety protocols.

Whyte, who has been following the weekly White House COVID-19 reports, wrote that the Oct. 4 update on Idaho “appears to be the first time the task force has explicitly recommended closing schools.”

The report says:

  • Outbreaks in Bannock, Bingham, Blaine, Custer, Elmore, Franklin, Gem, Gooding, Twin Falls and Washington counties “may be related to school openings,” based on the rapid uptick of cases among 12- to 17-year-olds in those areas.
  • Test positivity among 18- to 24-year-olds is 22.9 percent in Madison County (home to Brigham Young University-Idaho), 15.6 percent in Ada County (home to Boise State University) and 10.3 percent in Bannock County (home to Idaho State University). The statewide average test positivity rate is 10.1 percent.
  • The report says that in Latah County, home to the University of Idaho, test positivity among 18- to 24-year-olds was 80.7 percent. The U of I is reporting a far lower positivity rate of 8.35 percent, based largely on tests of students in fraternity and sorority houses. U of I officials have tied campus outbreaks to Greek houses. A spokeswoman from Idaho’s North Central District Health said the district could not confirm the White House number, and that the only positivity rate available to the district is 20.9 percent for all of Latah county.

“Data at the state level may differ than that available at the federal level,” the White House report says. EdNews was not immediately able to confirm each statistic included in the document.

The White House also uses different guidelines for gauging the severity of COVID-19 cases than some of Idaho’s seven health districts. Only one Idaho county is designated at a “red” or high-risk level by its local health district. Sunday’s White House report, however, said 52 percent of Idaho’s counties were considered in the “red” zone for high levels of COVID-19 community transmission.

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