Masks will be optional after Boise students return from spring break on March 28.
That’s after the Boise School District trustees deliberated for nearly two hours on Monday before unanimously adopting a new health and safety plan that takes effect late next month.
Boise’s move to adopt the more lenient health plan comes less than a week after state public health officials declared that Idaho hit its omicron case peak in late January. Cases still remain high, officials say.
It’s unclear when the state’s hospitalizations will peak. Three health districts in southern Idaho remain under a hospital crisis declaration that allows health care professionals to ration care in extreme circumstances.
Several schools in other states, which hit their peaks earlier than Idaho, are phasing out mask mandates in schools.
Board president Dave Wagers ordered one audience member to leave the room after they repeatedly spoke loudly during board deliberations, despite multiple warnings. There were at least two episodes of attendees interrupting the board meeting before votes on the plans had concluded.
The board did not accept verbal public comment at Monday’s meeting, but board members noted that they received hundreds of comments via email and more than 4,000 comments as part of a survey they distributed to staff and families ahead of the plan talks. Most people surveyed supported optional masks, according to graphics displayed at the meeting.
In addition to making masks optional, the new plan also restores pre-pandemic visitor and volunteer protocols along with reinstated school activities like dances, clubs and field trips.
Making masks optional likely makes contact tracing unfeasible, Tamara Fredrickson, health services administrator, told the board.
The plan was developed by an endemic COVID-19 planning committee made up of three parents, four high school students, school nurses, union representatives and administrators. The district did not label the plan as “endemic” to avoid entering a broader debate over when the coronavirus pandemic is endemic, said Area Director Brian Walker.
Instead, the plan focuses on providing best practices to manage school operations under the spread of infectious diseases generally. It includes a list of new symptoms that parents and students should monitor themselves to decide whether to go to school.
Trustees mostly agreed with the March 28 implementation date requested by district leaders. Only one member — the recently appointed Steve Schmidt, an engineer — asked if the plan could be implemented sooner.
Schmidt suggested that the board evaluate implementing the masks-optional plan in two weeks.
“Schools are still taxed. They’re not taxed the level they were in January. … We’re still seeing unfilled jobs in our schools every single day,” Assistant Superintendent Lisa Roberts replied.
Trustee Beth Oppenheimer said Idaho’s death toll, which is nearly 4,600, weighs on her decision-making.
“It’s devastating to think that so many people are dying from this, and we’re arguing about masks and we’re arguing about things like this,” she said. “People are dying. And they’re leaving behind family members. And what I don’t want to see is a child in the Boise School District left without a parent.”
Trustee Nancy Gregory said she’d like to be able to implement the more lenient plan sooner, but she said the district is looking at how they can best run schools.
Superintendent Coby Dennis said that in the long-term, “we need our kids without masks in school.” But the mask mandate “yo-yo effect … gets old for families,” Dennis said. “We need to make sure that when we go there, we get to stay there.”
State health officials are still worried about high COVID-19 spread levels, even after Idaho exited a partial hospital crisis Wednesday, state epidemiologist Dr. Christine Hahn told reporters Wednesday afternoon. She called the Boise School District board’s decision “wise.”
“But time will tell what the right decision was,” Hahn said.
She noted that better masks are available to the public now, like KN95s and N95s providing more personal protection. High quality masks are being given away by the federal government.
“I’m hopeful that for parents and individuals that are concerned, that they can have that as a tool,” Hahn said.
In December, the Boise School District held off on lifting its mask requirement after two local hospital administrators warned about omicron’s then-unknown risks, as Idaho Education News previously reported.