At the heart of Idaho’s coronavirus outbreak, Blaine County officials ponder the future

 

In Blaine County — the focal point of Idaho’s coronavirus outbreak — trustees aren’t giving up on reopening school later this spring.

But first things first. Like their colleagues across the state and across the nation, Blaine County teachers and administrators are scrambling to launch a remote learning program. Their target date is April 8.

The sooner the better, school board members said during a meeting Monday night. “There are really three thousand kids right now that have nothing to do,” trustee Rob Clayton said.

Blaine County was among the first Idaho school districts to close its doors — announcing a three-week closure on March 14, hours after health officials reported the first positive coronavirus case in the county. Since then, the resort community’s coronavirus case numbers have increased. On Tuesday morning, the local health district reported 187 cases in Blaine County, a per-capita rate that exceeds even New York City.

Blaine County’s sudden coronavirus outbreak has created its own set of complications for school officials.

On March 20, one day after the state issued an isolation order for Blaine County, district officials closed schools to staff. Under the district’s work-from-home order, only a single employee has been allowed in each school building.

During last week’s spring break, the work-from-home order slowed down the remote learning transition. One big job is disinfecting district Chromebooks — so students who need them can borrow them for remote learning. And that means bringing staff back into the schools.

“I think we have to jump in and do some things,” said Superintendent GwenCarol Holmes, “(or) we’ll debate this until the end of the school year and never get anything going.”

The district should begin disinfecting Chromebooks Thursday or Friday, district technology director Teresa McGoffin said. The district will focus first on getting devices in the hands of high school students, then middle school students, then elementary school students.

But getting the Chromebooks ready is only part of the job. For students who don’t have Internet at home, a device doesn’t do much good. And parts of the mountain community are too remote to set up student hotspots.

A district survey has already identified 50 families without Internet. “The survey was delivered via the Internet, so we know we are missing more families,” spokeswoman Heather Crocker said.

In addition, at least 30 district staffers don’t have home Internet, or they will need to borrow a computer to work from home.

Trustees stressed the importance of getting the remote program running; “starting with any kind of content is better than nothing,” said Lara Stone. Holmes didn’t disagree, but she pointed out a heartbreaking reality.

“We have kids who will not be able to participate as fully in their education for the rest of their school year,” she said.

Assuming, that is, the Blaine County schools remain closed all spring.

All schools are operating under a statewide closure, running through April 20, and the State Board of Education could extend that shutdown.

On Monday, board chairman R. Keith Roark said a reopening seemed unlikely, partly because some district employees have tested positive. But he also cautioned against getting out too far ahead of the situation. Ultimately, trustees passed a resolution committing to revisit the issue sometime before April 20.

No one has a crystal ball, Clayton said Monday night. The coronavirus could linger in Blaine County for months — or, he said, the community might be so heavily infected that the virus could run its course within a couple of weeks.

“I don’t want to get too mired down right now in looking too far in the future,” he said.

 

Kevin Richert

About 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 KIVI 6 On Your Side; "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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