Analysis: Trustees stare into the face (masked or unmasked) of a no-win situation

West Ada School District parents and patrons display signs prior to Tuesday’s trustees meeting. Nik Streng/Idaho Education News

A virus that has already killed more than 2,200 Idahoans is raging once again.

Idaho’s new coronavirus case numbers are back where they were in January, at the start of the vaccine rollout. A higher percentage of coronavirus tests are coming back positive, a sign of an out-of-control outbreak. Hospitalizations are surging as well.

All of these metrics point to one outcome. If this newest virus surge unfolds like the ones that preceded it, more Idahoans will die from COVID-19.

That’s the grim history. And the reality facing trustees, as they decide how to reopen schools this fall.

To state the obvious — but something worth mentioning — the unpaid elected trustees contemplating school mask requirements are not the enemy.

COVID-19 is the enemy.

The trustees are stuck in the middle of a sudden but predictable crisis.

A sudden surge, and one district’s reaction

When schools let out for the summer, after a turbulent and problematic 2020-21 academic year, the coronavirus pandemic was receding.

Now, as summer vacation winds down, things have gotten considerably worse. On Tuesday, the state reported 754 new coronavirus cases, the largest one-day total since Jan. 20.

In Idaho’s second largest school district, trustees reacted quickly.

On July 12, the Boise School District announced a mask-optional policy for 2021-22. At the time, Ada County’s coronavirus infection rates were low: using the state’s seven-day rolling average, the rate translated to 9 cases per 100,000 residents.

Ada County’s low numbers didn’t last, and neither did Boise’s mask-optional policy. On Aug. 3, trustees reinstituted the mask mandate. On that same day, Ada County’s infection rate stood at 28.3 cases per 100,000 residents — well below the peak number from late 2020, but still sharply trending upward.

An inevitable dilemma, and not just in Boise

As unpredictable as the coronavirus pandemic has proven to be, there is something almost preordained about the latest chapter in Idaho’s saga.

Idaho is no outlier here. While some of the state’s education leaders seemed to spend much of the summer in a passive, wait-and-see mode, this surge in cases should not have surprised anyone paying even passing attention.

The emerging and more contagious delta variant has triggered a coast-to-coast coronavirus wave — with the greatest impact in red states with low vaccination rates, and large unprotected populations that are susceptible to the new strain. Idaho fits the Central Casting mold for a state at risk of a delta variant outbreak; according to the Mayo Clinic, only five states have a lower vaccination rate.

The rising case numbers, predictably, have caused an about-face on pandemic protocols. Before the Boise School District reinstated its mask requirement, the Centers for Disease Control reworked its back-to-school guidelines to recommend school mask usage. Idaho’s Central Health District adopted those new CDC guidelines days later, setting the stage for Boise trustees to vote in favor of  requiring masks for all staff and students.

And while Boise is the largest district requiring masks this fall, face coverings have become a hot topic across the state. Moscow will require masks for the start of the school year, the Moscow-Pullman Daily News reported. Local doctors are pushing Idaho Falls trustees to require masks this fall. On the other hand, dozens of parents attended a Tuesday board meeting simply to urge new West Ada School District Superintendent Derek Bub to stay the course on a mask-optional policy.

Another year, another round of COVID fatigue

Also predictably, trustees are caught in a no-win situation.

After reinstating the mask mandate last week, Boise trustees drew catcalls from audience members, who called board members “sheep” and “cowards.” A crowd of critics crammed the meeting room for Monday’s board meeting, even though the mask issue was not on the agenda.

And this is Boise — one pocket of blue, by Idaho standards. If Boise trustees are getting pushback for their decision, that doesn’t predict well for their colleagues in conservative, rural districts.

Of course, it could be worse for Idaho trustees. They could face the unenviable choice confronting school boards in Florida or Texas — go mask optional, or defy executive orders from the governor’s office. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has threatened to withhold administrative salaries from districts that mandate masks.

While Idaho trustees don’t face this kind of overt pressure from the state, they are nonetheless under the microscope. Face masks in schools have become a talking point of the moment in conservative circles — and in Idaho, GOP gubernatorial candidate Janice McGeachin has made masks a centerpiece issue. Not surprisingly, the Idaho Freedom Foundation has followed suit, saying in a recent Facebook post, “Never muzzle Idaho students ever again.”

The trustees are stuck with this mask mess, for several reasons.

First, they have few options. Schools can’t require vaccines of any kind (not that the COVID-19 vaccines are available to kids under 12 anyway). And some of their other choices are even less popular than masking up — such as restricting school events or athletics, or adopting some form of virtual learning.

Second, the buck stops with trustees. While Gov. Brad Little hasn’t issued any kind of sweeping  order on masks, for them or against them, that makes the decision a matter of local control. For trustees in 115 school districts, the choice is theirs — in one of those be-careful-what-you-wish-for situations.

It’s enough to give even the most dedicated trustee a nagging case of COVID fatigue.

Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for his stories each 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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