UPDATE: More districts restrict travel as coronavirus surrounds Idaho

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As COVID-19 continued to amass outside Idaho’s borders Thursday, more state schools locked down travel to protect against a spread of the virus. 

Nampa and Vallivue school districts joined Boise in canceling out-of-state travel for students and employees. 

And March “sadness” hit sports when first the NCAA cancelled March Madness tournaments, and Boise State University followed suit by suspending all athletic events until further notice. 

As of Thursday afternoon, Idaho still did not have a confirmed case of COVID-19, better known as the novel coronavirus. 

School districts want to keep it that way. 

Vallivue Thursday shut down extracurricular travel outside of the state. Surrounding states are seeing more cases, community relations director Joey Palmer said, and the district wanted to take an “abundance of caution.” (Wyoming announced its first confirmed coronavirus case on Wednesday). 

That means a district robotics team won’t get to go to the upcoming world championships, Palmer said.

“Your heart goes out to these kids. They work hard to qualify, they work hard to raise funds and then it gets cancelled just to be safe,” he said. “We think it’s the right call, but it’s a tough pill to swallow.” 

As of Thursday afternoon, the school’s in-state athletic competitions remained on schedule. The Idaho High School Activities Association had not announced any travel or game restrictions, instead leaving that decision to local districts.

Districts are taking their own approaches to everything from sports to planning for online-classes in the event of a school closure.

On Wednesday, an EdNews review found that only about 50 of the state’s 177 websites had published information about coronavirus. Some districts wrote detailed closure plans, while others posted virus-facts and said they would communicate with parents as news of the pandemic develops.

Most schools are holding business-as-usual, but a spate of school closures around the country is intensifying a discussion about next-steps should the virus hit Idaho. While some – including universities — would probably move courses online,  some of Idaho’s K-12 schools say that can’t happen in their district, since some students wouldn’t have access to the technology or infrastructure they’d need for digital learning.

Another challenge on the horizon: student travel over spring break.

Prevention 

Scrub. Scrub. Scrub.

For districts across the state, prevention remains the key  defender against coronavirus. The virus, which can cause illness from a mild-cold to severe respiratory issues like pneumonia, spreads like the common flu — mostly through the air when a sick person coughs or sneezes.

Idaho’s health experts recommend  that schools:

  • Sanitize desks, counters,  doorknobs, keyboards, toys, handles and other commonly-touched  items at least daily.
  • Tell sick staff, students and volunteers to stay home until at least 24 hours after a fever goes away.
  • Have hand-washing supplies and sanitizer with 60 percent alcohol readily available.
  • Encourage good hand-washing and hygiene (including washing  hands for 20 seconds with soap and water, and keeping  hands away  from  nose, mouth and  eyes.)

“Currently, it appears that healthy children are not at high risk of severe illness from this virus,” the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare wrote in a news release.

The department warns schools should be on guard against bullying related to the virus’ geographic spread. Students could feel “unsafe in school and at school activities” because  of  prejudice, the department said, and schools can help by informing students about the illness and “training students to analyze media messages critically  to differentiate between evidence and speculation.”

Closure

The majority of people who get the new coronavirus, including children, have only “mild illness,” Idaho’s Southwest District Health agency wrote in a letter to parents, provided by the Caldwell School District.

“The likelihood SWDH will recommend closing schools is very low,” the letter says.

That said, districts are starting to think through contingency plans. And those precautions are driving conversations about equity in Idaho school districts, as leaders grapple with national questions of how to close schools, especially when some students don’t have internet access at home or rely on school for free and reduced priced meals.

Boise’s Rolling Hills Public Charter School writes that teachers are preparing online classes in case the school has to close for any extended period of time. The school would offer Chromebooks for students who need computer resources at home.

The Madison School District, in Rexburg, doesn’t have enough devices for all 5,400 students in the district to work  from home, assistant superintendent Randy Lords told EdNews. Access to the internet is another challenge.

“We have some families out here without TV, without computers or internet,” Lords said.

If the illness spreads to East Idaho and prompts the district to cancel school, Madison would probably cancel classes and try to make up the days at a later date.

Coeur D’Alene and the Blaine County School District have both said they don’t plan to go to online-only classes if they  have to close school buildings.

Blaine County spokeswoman Heather Crocker said more factors than  just internet access complicate the idea of moving classes online.

Some students will have to take care of their siblings if school is closed, especially if parents can’t afford to take time off work.

And other students rely on their school for food, through free and reduced priced meals.

“It is up to communities to decide what their tolerance level is for these kinds of decisions, and to really take those community factors into the decision making process,” Crocker said. “Community factors such as the impact on families who would not have childcare and the impact on students who would not have access to nutrition and other really critical services that they get through our school.”

Spring Break

There’s another challenge facing schools this month: Spring break.

Spring break in the Nampa School District is scheduled to start on March 23. District spokeswoman Kathleen Tuck says administrators have been discussing what to do if students travel to areas at a high-risk for the virus, like Seattle or Italy.

The 15,000-student district would count on those students and families to self-report their travel, Tuck said. Right now Nampa is following CDC guidelines in asking families to be aware of their travel, and if they go to an area of concern, to self-quarantine.

“I think it’s just a fluid situation, we’re constantly monitoring it,” Tuck said. “We’re just sort of watching. Watching what other people are doing, watching what’s happening around us… and trying to be responsible but not overreactive. That’s a very, very fine line.”

Do you have questions or concerns about the way  your district is dealing with the coronavirus? Let us know.

Data Analyst Randy Schrader and reporter Devin Bodkin contributed to this report. 

Sami Edge

About Sami Edge

Reporter Sami Edge, a University of Oregon graduate, joined Idaho Education News in 2019. She is a 2019 Education Writers Association fellow reporting on Latino student outcomes in Idaho. She also is a 2019 American Press Institute fellow. She can be reached at [email protected].

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