Analysis: How Little has approached this unfathomable crisis

It took less than 48 hours for a statewide school closure to become old news.

By Wednesday afternoon, one historic response to the coronavirus pandemic was eclipsed by a second. Gov. Brad Little’s 21-day stay-at-home order represents a stunning pivot, something as rapid as the spread of the virus itself. A pivot from local control to something not quite a lockdown.

To try to place real-time history into some perspective, let’s first look at how Little has approached the most urgent crisis of his 14-month tenure as governor.

Over a remarkable 12-day public process — marked by six news conferences, two AARP Idaho town hall teleconferences, and a teleconference with the state’s school superintendents — Little has kept referring back to the science. Timing, he has said repeatedly, is critical. He has emphasized trying to take the right steps at the right time in the coronavirus outbreak.

Hence Wednesday’s proclamation of extreme emergency. The “community spread” of the virus — not just in Blaine County, but in other urban areas of the state — drove his decision. “Idaho is in a new stage,” he said Wednesday.

But it often seemed like Little’s science-based approach was one step behind the politics of the moment. That isn’t necessarily fair, but reality isn’t necessarily fair.

When Little declined to order a statewide school closure on March 15 — and said he’d prefer to see schools keep their doors open — he based his recommendation on Centers for Disease Control guidelines. The CDC said an early school closure wouldn’t necessarily slow the spread of coronavirus, while causing “significant disruption” for schools, families and anyone responding to the coronavirus outbreak.

Little’s recommendations went largely unheeded.

Within hours of his March 15 conference call with school administrators, many district leaders closed their doors immediately, or announced a transition plan to close. Significantly, the West Ada School District changed course within six hours. On that Sunday afternoon, the state’s largest district said it would heed the governor’s advice and remain open. By Sunday evening, West Ada reversed course and announced an immediate shutdown, in response to pressure from parents and staff.

Eventually, the vast majority of districts decided to close their doors — a steady drip of local decisions that carried a cumulative effect. And it left the State Board of Education little choice Monday. What they called a “soft closure” was essentially a hard stop, shutting down classroom operations until April 20. The State Board wasn’t defying Little — the board, after all, is comprised of gubernatorial appointees and state superintendent Sherri Ybarra, a fellow Republican. The board instead was trying to give clear and consistent direction to school leaders who weren’t sure when they should reopen, and how they should even make that decision.

Meanwhile — and perhaps inevitably — Little’s overall response came under fire.

Critics immediately wanted Little to move more aggressively and more quickly, especially as local officials such as Boise Mayor Lauren McLean banned large gatherings, closed public libraries and eventually shut down bars and restaurant dining rooms. Little’s adherence to local control, a crucible of Idaho politics, didn’t go over well with Boiseans, who were none too happy to see crowded bars and restaurants remain in operation in neighboring communities.

But Little also faced pressure from the right, from Idahoans who are innately suspicious of government overreach. Anything Little did — even and especially Wednesday — will rankle some conservatives. And the Republican-dominated Legislature did Little no favors last week by staying in session, defying CDC guidelines against large gatherings and downplaying, through their actions, the severity of the pandemic.

But that too feels like old news. The Legislature finally did adjourn Friday — five days ago, or approximately 5 ½ months in Coronavirus Standard Time.

The story has unfolded quickly around us all, and certainly Little was not shielded from that.

During his latest AARP town hall, Little fielded questions about why he kept airports open, and why he hadn’t issued a travel ban to keep tourists from McCall. The former, he said, was a matter of keeping supply lines open. The latter, he said, was a constitutional matter.

“We are trying to get people to stay where they are in many aspects,” he said. “The ability to ban them is very difficult.”

That was Tuesday.

Then came Wednesday. And a stay-at-home order that says, among other things, that Idahoans should refrain from unnecessary travel. Not a ban, per se, but direct nonetheless.

The news of this week is a lot to digest — and a lot to implement. School officials are scrambling to figure out how to teach kids during a soft closure, shifting to online delivery within a matter of days. Idahoans also have to figure out how Wednesday’s news impacts their lives and their work routines — all while trying to process the sheer magnitude of the state’s sudden order.

In 12 days, everything changed. And maybe everything needs to be viewed through a different prism.

It’s inevitable to critique policy in short-term political context. But Wednesday’s news wasn’t about streamlining agency rules or increasing teacher pay. This was something never before seen, something scarcely imagined.

Each Thursday, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. In the interest of timeliness, this week’s analysis is running Wednesday.





Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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