East Idaho’s biggest districts won’t go fully online — yet

East Idaho’s three largest school districts have no plans to take instruction fully online, even as more Treasure Valley schools do so during the pandemic.

“I don’t anticipate having to move to online instruction unless something significantly disrupts our operations or if there is a community-wide order to stay home,” Bonneville School District Superintendent Scott Woolstenhulme told Idaho Education News.

As East Idaho’s largest district, Bonneville devotes one day a week to remote learning for its more than 13,000 students. The district also has a full-time, online learning option for families. But leaders there and in the region’s two other largest districts — Idaho Falls and Pocatello-Chubbuck — have no immediate plans to adopt fully remote models during a surge of COVID-19 cases in their communities and across the state.

For the first time in nearly two months, Idaho did not hit another weekly peak in new coronavirus cases. But it’s unclear if the numbers reflect reporting delays due to the Thanksgiving holiday.

Meanwhile, state leaders have implored K-12 leaders to continue letting kids learn at school. On Nov. 13, Gov. Brad Little repeatedly encouraged schools to offer in-person learning, noting that schools offer a safer, more controlled environment than the community at large. Other top leaders recently issued a joint statement echoing Little’s position. The governor and the State Board of Education have turned over decision making authority on how and when to open schools to local school boards.

Yet despite encouragement from leaders, the Boise, Caldwell and Nampa school districts are taking all learning online through the rest of 2020.

Idaho Falls and Pocatello-Chubbuck provide fully remote learning options for families. Both districts require some remote learning. Idaho Falls K-8 attend school in-person four days a week, while its high schoolers are on a hybrid learning model. Pocatello-Chubbuck’s model is similar, with the district’s elementary students learning fully in-person and secondary students on a hybrid schedule.

Leaders in the Bonneville, Idaho Falls and Pocatello-Chubbuck districts say a number of factors fuel their reluctance to follow suit, from increased health guidelines for students and staff to perceived gaps between the level of spread in the community and at school.

“While case counts are rising in eastern Idaho, the cases we are seeing in our schools have largely been a result of spread in the community,” Idaho Falls Superintendent George Boland told EdNews.

That seems to indicate that various protocols — from face masks to 14-day isolation requirements for students and staff exposed to coronavirus — have helped minimize spread in schools, Boland said.

Woolstenhulme echoed that belief, adding that Bonneville leaders and local health officials have traced only about 1 percent of confirmed coronavirus cases in the district’s schools to transmission at school.

Community input also plays a part. Woolstenhulme pointed to a recent district survey revealing overwhelming support among staff and the community for in-person teaching and learning, even as the virus has continued to spread.

But stakeholder input is only part of a broader picture, said Pocatello-Chubbuck spokeswoman Courtney Fisher said. Trustees in her district consider community feedback when shaping the district’s coronavirus response plan and instructional approach — but only alongside regular input from staff and local health officials.

And the collective input, for now, suggests that kids should still be in school at least part of the time.

“Community cases are up, but cases in our schools are holding steady,” Fisher said, pointing to a running snapshot of confirmed cases among Pocatello-Chubbuck’s students and staff. Here’s a breakdown of the numbers:

Date

Student cases

Staff cases

Nov. 24

29

12

Nov. 13

18

13

Oct. 30

27

25

Despite Idaho Falls’ current plan to continue with in-person learning, Boland said a growing number of cases in the community is impacting his district differently.

Boise’s shift to online followed a spike in cases among teachers, causing difficulties in staffing classrooms with substitute teachers.

Continued community spread could bring a similar scenario to Idaho Falls, Boland said. “(It’s) definitely affecting our staff. We have seen an increase in staff cases over the last 10 days, which is a grave concern because of the severe shortage of substitute teachers.”

Further reading: Check our daily-updated map of operational plans of all schools compared to county risk levels.

 

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. He is a 2019 Solutions Journalism Network fellow and the Idaho Press Club's 2019 print reporter of the year. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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