(UPDATED, Jan. 25, with include additional details about the vote.)
CALDWELL — Responding to high staff and student absence rates, Caldwell School District trustees voted in favor of a temporary mask mandate on Monday.
The district-wide mask mandate lasts until either Feb. 14 or until student absences improve, at a level defined by Caldwell superintendent Shalene French and other school administrators.
Caldwell School District closed for two days earlier this month, creating a five-day weekend when combined with a Monday holiday that district leaders hoped would allow staff to quarantine. Officials called the partial closure a success.
“The sooner we can go to masks recommended versus mandated, the quicker the better. But in the meantime, I do believe in keeping our schools open and kids in school and getting the staff back,” said trustee Patricia Robertson, who introduced the motion to require masks.
Many Idaho schools have closed temporarily in recent weeks amid a surge of COVID-19, fueled by the omicron variant, that has collided with flu season. Staff shortages have driven many of the closures, Idaho EdNews previously reported.
Twice last week, more than 1,000 of Caldwell’s 5,500 students were absent — leaving the district with student absence rates of 19% and 20%, district data released Monday showed.
Following the two-day closure on Jan. 13 and 14, staff absences slowed, French said. District data shows absences rose last week. The district was already short-staffed, she said, as it has not been able to fill 44 open staff positions this school year.
With several secretaries gone this month, several principals managed their front offices, French said. Shortages are especially straining in child nutrition workers, where officials are discussing “changing how we serve so we don’t use so many hot meals,” she said.
“It is more than a challenge,” French told trustees.
Mike Stephenson, director of Caldwell Transportation Company, said mechanics and office staff are filling in to drive busses. “We’re fighting the same battles everyone else seems to be fighting, but we’re getting through it.”
Earlier Monday, Idaho Department of Health & Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen reinstated hospital crisis standards for a large area of southern Idaho, which includes Ada County and Canyon County, where Caldwell is located. Officials cited staffing constraints.
Several Caldwell schools required masks before the Monday decision in favor of a district-wide mandate, French said.
Heather Jacobs, a health aide in the district, told trustees she has received many supportive calls from parents over the past three weeks. In “phone call after phone call, they want the masks. …. Every parent is calling in, saying ‘We’ll do whatever we have to do to be in school.’”
The board voted 4-1 in favor of the mask mandate. Trustee Andrew Butler was the sole opposing vote, district spokesperson Jessica Watts told Idaho EdNews on Tuesday.
Before the vote, when discussing a previous version of the motion that succeeded, treasurer Manuel Godina and vice chair Travis Manning both indicated their support.
“I don’t want to do it, but I think that we need to get back on track,” Godina said.