This article was written special for Idaho Education News and the Idaho Press Tribune.
NAMPA — After two days of discussion, the Nampa School District’s board of trustees voted to keep schools fully online until Canyon County is no longer in the highest risk level for the spread of COVID-19.
The board voted 4-1 to approve a reopening plan Wednesday night that keeps schools closed for now and gave Superintendent Paula Kellerer the power to reopen schools under a hybrid model following Southwest District Health’s guidance. The board also voted 4-1 to allow the district’s fall athletics programs to resume practices starting Thursday.
The Nampa School District started its school year Aug. 24, and has been operating fully online. The board determined how schools should operate based on a color-coded scale of risk, going from green, to yellow, to orange and finally red — the highest risk level. The scale follows Southwest District Health’s health alert level, which places Canyon County in the red level.
According to Southwest District Health’s data, Canyon County’s latest positivity rate for COVID-19 tests is 11.1 percent, which ranks in the red level. The orange risk level would require a positivity rate below 10 percent.
Saint Alphonsus Nampa President Travis Leach told the board that Canyon County is one of the biggest COVID-19 hotspots in the country. Nampa makes up more than half of Canyon County’s total reported COVID-19 cases, with 3,825 out of 7,304, as of Wednesday night.
Trustee Betsy Keller pushed back against Southwest District Health’s ranking of Canyon County in the red zone. She said other factors, such as fatality rate and hospitalization rate, were in lower risk levels, and overall she feels Nampa is not in the highest risk level.
“Nampa is orange,” Keller said.
Kellerer said medical professionals have confirmed that the two most reliable indicators of the spread of COVID-19 is the percent of positive tests and the percent of cases, both of which place Canyon County in the red category.
More than 100 parents, students and teachers submitted comments to the board expressing their opinion on schools reopening. More than 70 requested the district reopen schools, while about 27 asked schools to remain online. Ten additional people testified during the board’s Tuesday meeting, with eight in support of reopening schools and two in support of online learning.
In a survey of more than 1,000 district staff, opinions were split on whether staff felt comfortable with schools reopening, but slightly more staff said they were comfortable with reopening.
More the 80 percent of Idaho parents agree their child learns best in school, according to a survey conducted this summer by Idaho EdNews.
Although Keller ultimately voted in favor of the reopening plan, she argued to reopen schools under a hybrid model. She said families who are not comfortable with their students returning to school would still have the option to continue online, but families who wanted in-person learning to resume did not have that option if schools remained closed.
Trustee chair Kim Rost was the sole dissenting vote against the reopening plan. She also supported allowing schools to reopen under a hybrid model to allow families a choice. Rost said there are other areas in Canyon County, such as the Vallivue School District, which are allowing hybrid learning.
Nampa’s reopening plan would allow hybrid learning in the orange level, and Kellerer said they could get there soon. The earliest Southwest District Health could put Canyon County in the orange level is Sept. 9. Under that timeline, Nampa schools would reopen for hybrid learning Sept. 21.
Kellerer said reopening schools while Canyon County is in the red level would put people at risk. Trustee Mandy Simpson said she worried that if schools reopened too early, it could cause a spike in cases that would require schools to close again and set the district back further.
“I do think it could be considered reckless,” Kellerer said.
Rost said she was also uncomfortable because she felt the reopening plan gave too much power to Southwest District Health to determine when schools could reopen. However, Kellerer said she supported the plan and Simpson and trustee Mike Kipp said it is the trustees’ duty to follow the advice of medical professionals during the pandemic.
“We are putting the health of our students in the hands of the medical experts,” Kipp said.
The trustees also voted to allow fall sports to resume, with practices allowed to begin Thursday.
Earlier on Wednesday, a group of about 50 students demonstrated outside the Nampa School District office asking the district to reopen athletics programs.
Most of the trustees were in agreement about letting practices resume, but were split on whether to allow games between schools. The district’s original recommended plan would not allow games while Canyon County was in the red risk level.
Rost and Keller supported games resuming regardless of the county’s risk level. Both argued that sports were an optional activity, while school is mandatory. They said for many student athletes, sports is the most important thing in their lives. Keller said she expects some people to contract COVID-19 if sports are allowed, but she believes the value of athletics is worth it.
“To these kids, this is everything,” Keller said.
Kipp and Simpson argued that allowing athletics to resume could set back schools reopening. Simpson pointed out evidence that children can often be asymptomatic and spread the disease to others, and said allowing sports could keep Canyon County in the red level for the rest of the year.
“I want kids back in school more than I want kids doing sports,” Simpson said.
Ultimately, the board agreed to allow sports to resume, including games that would begin as early as Sept. 9, provided that Kellerer looked into options to provide health screenings to athletes. Kipp was the sole dissenting vote.
The board will solidify its athletics plan further at its next meeting Sept. 8.