Boise superintendent: Face-to-face classes are ‘a bit more unlikely’

With the first day of school less than three weeks away, face-to-face instruction in the Boise School District appears to be in serious jeopardy.

After weeks of widespread coronavirus cases across Ada County, the state’s second-largest school district is changing its expectations for 2020-21. For weeks, district officials have braced for the need to shift to online classes or hybrid instruction at some point in the school year, amidst an outbreak — but they had expected to at least start the year with in-person classes.

“I think that is becoming a little bit more unlikely,” Boise district Superintendent Coby Dennis said Wednesday afternoon.

Dennis offered the sobering assessment during a conference call with education, public health and community leaders — a meeting the State Board of Education convened to discuss school reopening issues at the K-12 and higher education level.

For all education leaders, the clock is ticking — but particularly in Boise, where classes begin on Aug. 17. Boise trustees will meet Monday to discuss their plans for the upcoming year.

Boise is offering three options for its 25,000 K-12 students. The district is offering a face-to-face learning option, a shift to an online or blended learning model during an outbreak, or an online program for parents who are not comfortable sending their children to school. For parents, the clock is ticking too. They must sign up for the online program by Aug. 7, with signups at neighborhood schools next week.

But since June 18, when Boise unveiled its fall reopening plan, coronavirus cases have skyrocketed in and around its 50 school buildings. Ada County had 1,043 confirmed or probable coronavirus cases on June 18; Wednesday’s total was 7,515.

Other developments from Wednesday’s conference call:

Districts support mask mandate. A day after Central District Health made clear that Ada County’s mask mandate extends to school buildings, West Ada and Boise district officials offered unqualified support for the policy. The health district’s directive essentially means all students, in K-12 and higher education, will be required to wear masks in school buildings at all times.

Boise State University already requires face masks.

Some encouraging numbers? The Ada County outbreak is showing some signs of tapering off. During the current outbreak, 11 to 17 percent of Ada County’s coronavirus tests have been coming back positive. The numbers have dropped over the past few days, said Ted Epperly, a Boise physician who sits on the Central District Health board. The new numbers are approaching the 5 percent mark threshold that health officials consider a sign that an outbreak is under control.

New case numbers are also leveling off, said Central District Health director Russ Duke. “I’m certainly encouraged.”

But on Wednesday, Central District Health also issued a sobering warning for its four-county jurisdiction. The district said coronavirus case numbers might necessitate a blend of online and face-to-face learning — or K-12 school closures — for the entire 2020-21 school year.

Coming Thursday: We take an in-depth look at Boise’s school reopening challenges.

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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