Little declines to call for statewide school closures; leaves decision to local leaders

Gov. Brad Little told school leaders Sunday he will not issue a statewide order to close schools in response to the novel coronavirus.

Gov. Brad Little

Little made the announcement during an afternoon conference call with local school administrators. Instead of closing schools, Little and Idaho Department of Health and Welfare officials urged local leaders to consult with area public health districts and make decisions locally.

“I encourage you all — all of the people on this call and the rest of your partners — to make an informed, science-based decision based on consultation with your local health authorities based on circumstances in your individual areas,” Little said.

If school leaders decide to close schools, Health and Welfare officials said it is much less disruptive to close them for a short period of time. Little and health officials warned school leaders to consider that if they close schools now, the community spread of coronavirus may be worse in a matter of weeks.

“My job, fundamentally, is to keep Idahoans safe and look after their well-being,” Little said. “Prepare for worst-case scenario but we should also deescalate alarmism, and that is critical.”

The response from districts was split. West Ada, the state’s largest school district, at first announced plans to open Monday, then reconsidered. The Boise, Twin Falls and Cassia County districts also announced closures.

Several districts — including Pocatello-Chubbuck and Idaho Falls — will remain open, but absences will be excused. Several Treasure Valley districts took a similar and shared approach.

“School will be held Monday and Tuesday in Caldwell, Emmett, Kuna, Mountain Home, Nampa, and Vallivue school districts and Boise Catholic schools,” the districts said in a joint statement. “All athletics and activities will be postponed through March 29. As always, we honor the right of parents not to send their students to school. Absences on Monday and Tuesday will be excused without consequences.”

Sunday’s conference call came after reports of five confirmed cases of coronavirus in Idaho: two in Ada County, two in Blaine County and one in Eastern Idaho’s Teton County, according to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.

Immediately after the call, West Ada Superintendent Mary Ann Ranells announced the state’s largest district will remain open Monday. Ranells said district officials agonized over the decision all weekend.

“This was an extremely hard decision, but agencies at every level of government urged us to continue school next week,” Ranells wrote. “We are continuing school tomorrow.”

By Sunday evening, West Ada had changed course.

“Based on parental and staff concerns about the spread of COVID-19, the decision to keep schools open has been revised.  We are canceling school from now until the end of spring break,” the district said on its website. “The West Ada COVID-19 task force will meet to determine if schools will remain closed beyond spring break.”

Before Little’s conference call, the Coeur d’Alene and Blaine County school districts had already announced plans to close school until the first week of April.

In a news release issued shortly before Little’s conference call Sunday, the Idaho Education Association called for the state to close all schools for a minimum of three weeks.

“Education leaders are uniquely positioned to help ‘flatten the curve’ and stave off a public health crisis,” IEA President Layne McInelly said in a written statement. “Recognizing that school buildings often hold more than 250 people, five days a week, we must close our schools immediately for the health of our communities, students and staff.”

Little said local school leaders have the authority to exclude students who are diagnosed with or are suspected of having a contagious disease. He also said local school leaders may close a school with an order from Health and Welfare or local health authorities.

All of Idaho’s public colleges and universities are moving classes online, beginning Monday.

During Sunday’s call, Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen urged schools to remain open, citing the latest CDC guidelines.

But he recognized school leaders may be facing intense local pressure to close.

“I will tell you up front the CDC and the Department of Health and Welfare’s bias is that we would prefer schools stay open at this time,” Jeppesen said.

Jeppesen and other health officials urged school officials to consider “all aspects” of a decision to close schools, including the disruption to communities and ability of health care workers to continue to stay on the job instead of caring for children at home while school is closed.

The World Health Organization has classified the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, as a global pandemic. More than 156,000 have been diagnosed with the virus as of Sunday morning, including nearly 3,000 confirmed cases in the United States, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Governors in the neighboring states of Utah, Washington and Oregon have already ordered statewide school closures.

Idaho’s first confirmed case of coronavirus was confirmed late Friday afternoon during a press conference with Little, Ybarra and Health and Welfare officials. Since then, four other cases have been confirmed.

During a series of news conferences Friday at the Statehouse, Little and Health and Welfare officials urged the public to remain calm and take several steps to help protect the spread of the virus.

They recommended:

  • Washing your hands regularly.
  • Covering coughs and sneezes.
  • Staying home if you are feeling sick.
  • Staying away from people who are sick.

More information about the coronavirus is available on the state’s website.

School openings and closures: an updated list

  • West Ada: Closed through spring break. Scheduled to reopen after spring break on March 30.
  • Boise: Closed until March 30. “Office staff at all schools will be available for parents to pick up student medications, personnel belongings, etc.,” the district said on Twitter Sunday afternoon.
  • Middleton: Closed until March 30.
  • Nampa. Open Monday and Tuesday. Absences will be excused.
  • Pocatello-Chubbuck: Open, but the district will excuse all absences from Monday through Friday, according to a post on its Facebook page.
  • Bonneville: Open. In an emergency meeting Sunday night, the school board voted to waive the 90-percent attendance requirement for the remainder of the school year. It also voted to close school Thursday and Friday, for a staff professional development day so educators can build online lesson plans for the many students that are expected to miss class. Schools and devices will also be cleaned Thursday and Friday.
  • Idaho Falls: Open through Wednesday, the last scheduled school day before spring break. Absences will be excused.
  • Teton: Closed from Monday through Friday. The district will move instruction online from March 23 to April 6. Health officials had confirmed case of coronavirus within the district’s boundaries as of Sunday night.
  • Caldwell. Open Monday and Tuesday. Absences will be excused.
  • Emmett. Open Monday and Tuesday. Absences will be excused.
  • Kuna. Open Monday and Tuesday. Absences will be excused.
  • Mountain Home. School will close Monday for staff training and resume on Tuesday. Absences will be excused.
  • Vallivue. Open Monday and Tuesday. Absences will be excused.
  • Cassia County: Closed Tuesday through March 29, communications officer Debbie Critchfield said. Monday was previously scheduled as a half-day, and students will use that time to prepare for the closure and gather materials they need. The district office will remain open during the closure.
  • Twin Falls: A “soft closure” will begin Monday. No classes will be held, but staff will be expected to report to work “to prepare for the possibility of a more extended closure.” All classes, athletics, preschool and child care will be closed through March 30, the end of spring break.
  • Lewiston: Closed until March 30.
  • Coeur d’Alene: Closed until April 6, as previously reported.
  • Blaine County: Closed until April 6, as previously reported.
  • Moscow: Closed until April 6, the Lewiston Tribune reported.
  • Kimberly: Closed Monday, and will reopen Tuesday, the Twin Falls Times-News reported.
  • Alturas International Academy (Idaho Falls): “Soft” close for parents who “absolutely” need to send their children Monday and Tuesday. The school will close fully from Wednesday to April 6, according to post on its Facebook page.
  • Fruitland: Closing Wednesday March 18-March 31 according to the Fruitland Facebook page.
  • Payette: Schools operating on a normal schedule for now, according to a district Facebook post. Students have their planned spring break starting Friday.
  • New Plymouth: Superintendent David Sotutu said in a Facebook post that New Plymouth schools will be open Monday through Thursday. Friday is a planned “School at Home” day,  and the following week is spring break.
  • Homedale: School will be open Monday, Superintendent Rob Sauer said. The district will monitor the situation day-by-day, hour-by-hour.
  • Wendell: Classes and activities in the district are cancelled until March 30.
  • MinidokaThe district will start spring break three days early, on Wednesday. “We encourage you to have your student attend school on Monday and Tuesday as we will be sharing information about how they can access learning from home and assigning devices to be sent home with students on Tuesday,” the district wrote in an announcement to parents.
  • Madison: Open until state or local health authorities suggest otherwise.
  • Ririe: Open Monday, but leaders will meet tomorrow to reassess the situation.
  • Fremont County: Open Monday, according to a statement on the district’s Facebook page. Leaders will meet Monday to reassess.
  • Jefferson Will institute a “soft close” on  Tuesday March 17, with schools open for students  with  no other child care options. Closed March 18-April 3 for an extended  spring  break.
  • Sugar-Salem: Sugar Salem: School is closed from Tuesday, March 17 “until further notice” after a family member of students in the district tested positive for COVID-19 on Saturday. The students were  not in school on Monday, Superintendent Chester Bradshaw wrote  in a note to parents, but the district anticipates moving students to an  online education model.
  • Blackfoot: Open Monday, but the district is considering excusing absences in the coming weeks, according to a post on its Facebook page.
  • Clark County: Open Monday, according to the district’s website.
  • Treasure Valley Classical Academy (Fruitland): Still open according to a letter from the district. Circumstances that would lead to closure include a directive from state government, or a confirmed case of COVID-19 in the school community.
  • Teton: Closing schools starting Monday, according to a news release. Schools will be closed all week, and teachers will develop a distance learning plan for students. The district plans to start “home-based learning” for students the following week. The week of March 30-April 3 is the district’s regularly planned spring break.
  • Bingham Academy (Blackfoot): Open while the school continues to monitor the situation.
  • Elevate Academy (Caldwell): Closed through March 30.
  • Jerome:  will close early  for spring break. School is  out starting March 18, extending through March 30. Teachers are expected to report to work  on Thursday, March 19 to make plans for extended closures.
  • Gooding: Open March 16 and 17, closed March 18 and 19.
  • Bear Lake School District: Closed March 16 through April 6, 2020.
  • Post Falls: Closed March  16 and 17  for cleaning.

Idaho Education News editor Jennifer Swindell and reporter Kevin Richert contributed to this report.

 

Clark Corbin

About Clark Corbin

Reporter Clark Corbin has covered Idaho government and education for more than a decade. He’s followed every legislative session, gavel-to-gavel, since 2011. Clark is a co-host of the Extra Credit podcast with Kevin Richert published on Fridays. You can follow him on Twitter: @clarkcorbin. He can be reached by email at [email protected]

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