Analysis: In a long, simmering summer of coronavirus, Boise trustees wrestle with reopening


Boise school trustees will decide the district’s plan for the 2020-21 school year Monday night. Superintendent Coby Dennis hasn’t decided what he’ll recommend to trustees — and he doesn’t envy their job. “That’s a decision that’s going to be very difficult. It’s going to be emotional.”

Boise, one of the state’s coronavirus hotspots, is also a flashpoint in Idaho’s school reopening debate.

Trustees will decide how to start the 2020-21 school year at a Monday night meeting that falls just two weeks before the scheduled first day of classes.

Yes, Boise’s number are larger than most — in typical times, the district’s 26,000 students and 5,000 employees are dispersed across 50 school sites.

But Boise’s dilemma is Idaho’s dilemma. Boise is balancing its desire to reopen schools against an unabated public health threat. Boise needs to work closely with local health officials, in ways that couldn’t have been imagined a year ago. Boise is trying to retool its online learning model, after the pandemic forced teachers into a rushed spring rollout.

And Boise is trying to satisfy patrons who are as nervous as they were in March, when most Idaho schools abruptly shuttered for the year.

“What I’m hearing is fear,” Superintendent Coby Dennis said Thursday. “And we fully understand it. We have the same anxieties.”

The June 18 decision — and the aftermath

The plan and the hope, from March, was to reopen Boise schools by summer’s end.

On June 18, trustees took a step toward that goal, passing a fall reopening plan weeks in the making. The pandemic operations plan outlined a framework for face-to-face classes during times of minimal to moderate coronavirus spread, a scenario the document termed the “new norm.”

The norm since June 18 has been far different. Idaho’s long, simmering summer of coronavirus hit Boise with added force.

As of Wednesday, the state Department of Health and Welfare reported 7,515 confirmed or probable coronavirus cases in Ada County, more than a sevenfold increase since June 18. (During this same time period, by contrast, Idaho’s case numbers have increased more than fivefold.)

“Timing’s everything, isn’t it?” said Dennis, who concedes that the Boise reopening plan might have looked different had it been written later in June.

It isn’t just the case numbers that have changed since June 18.

Since then, the Central District Health board has issued a pair of orders with implications for Ada County schools. The first, issued June 22, restricts gatherings of more than 50 people, and the second extends a countywide face mask mandate to school buildings.

The Central District Health decisions illustrate the fast-moving nature of pandemic public policy, and the delicate interplay between health districts and school districts. The limits on gatherings could be moot, since Boise’s school plan already restricted field trips and assemblies. And while the Boise district plan made masks optional, Dennis is comfortable adopting the health district’s mask mandate.

“We need people to start to overlook the politics of this,” he said.

Of definitions and data

The reopening process will require all education leaders, for 115 school districts and 73 charter schools, to work closely with Idaho’s seven health districts. School officials will make the reopening policies, and the health districts cannot veto them. Under the state’s school reopening guidelines, the health districts play an advisory role.

But the health districts still have considerable say, particularly when it comes to defining the level of a local coronavirus outbreak. Those definitions will help determine whether a district or charter can open its doors, shift to online learning or offer a blend of online and face-to-face instruction.

During “substantial community transmission,” as defined by Central District Health, Boise could shift all of its classes to online. Central District Health hasn’t defined what “substantial” transmission actually means; those definitions could come out Monday, the same day of the Boise trustees’ meeting. But Central District Health has indicated that schools in its four-county jurisdiction could spend the entire school year operating under “minimal to moderate” or “substantial” community transmission — prompting Dennis to question whether Boise schools can open for face-to-face learning on Aug. 17.

Once the definitions are sorted out, the Boise district plans to work closely with the health district to apply data on local coronavirus cases and outbreaks. That’s important, given the size and the sprawl of the Boise district. During an outbreak, administrators could decide to close some schools, but not all of them.

“We can be fairly nimble in moving back and forth,” said Brian Walker, one of the Boise district’s four senior “area directors.” Walker worked closely on the district’s pandemic plan.

Online, Version 2.0

In March, Boise and all other school districts had to shoehorn a face-to-face learning approach into an online platform.

Things will be different this year, said Debbie Donovan, the area director working on the district’s online learning plan. For one thing, the school day will look more like a school day. First period math will be first period math, whether a child attends school or logs on from home. And compared to this spring — when the improvised online coursework was largely review — this year’s classes will be more rigorous.

Already, 3,200 to 3,300 students are enrolled in Boise Online School for at least the fall semester. Dennis isn’t surprised, because the numbers are in line with district survey data. In the spring, about 10 percent of parents said they were on the fence about face-to-face learning, or they had decided to keep their kids home until a coronavirus vaccine is available.

And even for a district with 50 schools, launching an online school for more than 3,000 students is a daunting task. Registrations will cut off Aug. 7, just 10 days before classes begin. The district is working on staffing from in-house — and teachers with concerns about their own health will have first shot at teaching online.

“It’s all hands on deck right now,” Donovan said.

Fears and frustration

On the cusp of a 2020-21 school year in a COVID-19 world, fear is a common sentiment. But last week, Katherine Olsson went public with her frustrations.

In a pointed email to Dennis — which she copied and shared on Twitter — the former Borah High School English teacher said she was “ashamed” to see her former district pushing an unsafe reopening plan.

Olsson left Borah in February — voluntarily, she said, and on good terms. But since she is under contract through August, she has been able to track the district’s reopening plans. Olsson decided to speak on behalf of her former colleagues, who are worried about their health but afraid to speak up. “I guess I lost my patience,” Olsson said in an interview this week.

And while Olsson has no children of her own, she still talks about “her kids,” her former students. In Borah, a school with some of the district’s highest poverty rates, school is a place for learning, for social support, for a nutritious meal. But the pandemic poses an added health risk to working families who are living paycheck to paycheck.

“You are harming the most marginalized members of your community,” she wrote. “I’m forced to wonder, do you not realize that, or do you just not care?”

Dennis defends the district’s plan — pointing out that, as a former employee, Olsson hasn’t seen the work that has gone into it. He says the district is committed to getting essential services to students who need them the most, whether they attend a brick-and-mortar school or study at home.

And Dennis says he understands Olsson’s sentiments.

“Her anger and her fear are absolutely justified,” he said. “It’s indicative of what some of our families are feeling right now.”

Monday’s decision

Forty-six days after approving the reopening plan, trustees will take a second look Monday night. (Click here for details on the 5:30 p.m. meeting, including information on how to submit  written comments or sign up to testify virtually.)

In essence, everything is on the table. Trustees could move the entire 2020-21 school year online, for all students. They could start the year online, for a few weeks or for the fall semester. They could delay the start of the school year, much as the Caldwell School District did last week.

Before they vote, trustees will hear recommendations from a district reopening committee, and from administrators. Dennis isn’t sure what he’ll say. Like his peers in many schools, he’s still waiting for more information from his local health district.

“It’s going to be a long weekend for us.”

Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for it every Thursday.

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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