The sun was still rising when James Bright started pacing outside Boise’s Hawthorne Elementary school.
Gloves on, thermos in hand, Bright walked up and down the school’s front walk from 7:45 to 9:15, keeping an eye out for parents trying to drop off their kids.
On most Mondays, Bright would be surrounded by youngsters chirping good-mornings during drop-off — maybe the exact kind of situation the Boise School District was hoping to prevent by cancelling schools with a cases of COVID-19 on the rise in Idaho.
“My typical greets in the morning, I usually get mauled by a few hundred,” Bright said. “Hence the need to close it down when you have close-proximity.”
On this morning, the quiet parking lot was a good sign. Parents got the message to stay-at-home. During his nearly two-hour watch, Bright didn’t have to turn away a single parent who had missed the memo.
“You always want to hear kids laughing, hearing them play,” Bright said, clouds of breath glinting in the early spring sun. “It’s quite lonely.”
The Boise School District closed its doors abruptly on Sunday night, informing parents there would be no school on Monday because of mounting concerns about the coronavirus. Over the next two days, nearly every other district followed suit as two confirmed cases of coronavirus turned to five, nine, 11 spread across the southern edge of the state.
By Wednesday, the State Department of Education estimated that 95 percent of schools had opted to shut down.
For some teachers, the closures felt like a mad dash to plan online or at-home learning plans, pack up perishable food for distribution to hungry families or get kids set up with laptops to take home.
“I don’t think anyone had any time to really prepare physically or mentally,” Susan Prestel, a third grade teacher in the West Ada District wrote on Facebook. West Ada was among the districts that closed on a dime.
Even for those who had more time, the closures come as an uncertain goodbye.
The superintendent of the Mackay School District suggested last week that teachers start looking for distance-learning resources, fifth grade teacher Michelle Peterson said. At the time, Idaho had no confirmed coronavirus cases, but Washington’s infection rates were booming and the governor had ordered all schools shut-down.
The district surveyed students to see who had reliable internet and mobile learning devices at home, then left for Spring Break last Friday — the same day the Idaho’s governor announced the first case of COVID-19. At a Tuesday board meeting, district officials decided to close through April 2.
All of Peterson’s students have access to a ChromeBook, thanks to a grant the district won, and she had some time to put together online lessons and work packets for the kids. Local telecommunications company ATC Communications offered to set up free internet for homebound students in its service area, and by Wednesday the company said at least 10 homes had taken them up on that offer.
Peterson’s kids are set up to learn. But she’s worried about how long they’ll be without a teacher.
“Putting everybody online is a bit of a stop gap measure, it’s a little bit of a Bandaid,” she said. “I don’t feel like that will ever replace having a teacher in a classroom.”
Before Peterson was a teacher, she worked in public health for 15 years. But, the crisis America is facing now feels like uncharted territory.
“It’s disconcerting only because of the unknown,” she said, adding: “I’m really going to miss my kids.”
The next few weeks will be as quiet as Monday morning was for principal Bright. Boise schools are shut down until at least March 27, through the district’s planned spring break.
He’s glad the district shut down when it did.
Bright’s daughter and wife have auto-immune deficiencies. “They can’t afford to be sick,” he said.
His recent after-school routine has been to wash his hands, put his clothes in the wash, then take a shower.
“You can be vigilant, and it’s good to be proactive. But once things are out of the bag, you can’t put them back in the bag,” he said. “With my wife and my child you can’t say: ‘well, I wish I would’ve.'”