As expected Thursday, Gov. Brad Little announced plans to open more businesses shuttered by the coronavirus pandemic.
But Little was terse on a couple of other issues — including high school graduations that defy his Idaho Rebounds reopening plan.
The state will enter the second stage of the two-month reopening plan Saturday — a move that Little has been telegraphing for days. During a news conference Thursday afternoon, he praised Idahoans for changing their routines and helping to curb the spread of coronavirus, and urged Idahoans to keep it up.
“We control the outcome,” he said. “Our personal choices matter.”
Under the second stage of Idaho Rebounds, 95 percent of the state’s businesses will be allowed to operate. On Saturday, restaurants will be allowed to resume dine-in service, and businesses such as gyms and salons can reopen. In one twist, Little said he would allow bars to reopen as early as May 30, if the state continues to keep coronavirus case numbers in check. Originally, Little said bars would need to remain closed until June.
Little used Thursday’s news conference to urge Idahoans to continue to wear face coverings and practice social distancing. And when asked about enforcing his guidelines, he took a conciliatory tack.
“I believe in personal responsibility,” he said, “and a little bit of peer pressure.”
But Little has faced some pushback, which has intensified in recent weeks. Some businesses have opened early, in defiance of Little’s guidelines. Some of Little’s fellow Republicans have openly questioned the wisdom and the constitutionality of the business closures. A few high schools have proposed graduations that will violate Little’s guidelines that limit public gatherings, although Minico High School is walking back its graduation plans, the Twin Falls Times-News reported Thursday.
When Little was asked if he was on speaking terms with Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin — a vocal critic of the shutdowns — he first tried to laugh off the question. “When we speak, we are.”
Pressed further, Little said he and McGeachin last spoke about three weeks ago, but said his primary focus is the coronavirus, and Idaho’s response.
Little had even less to say about high school graduations. When asked if the state would take action involving public events at public schools, Little simply said no, then called for a different question.
As of Thursday, Idaho has reported 2,353 confirmed or probable coronavirus cases and 72 deaths from COVID-19. The state has reported at least 25 new cases a day for the past three days. That hasn’t occurred since a three-day span from April 22 to April 24.
The numbers can fluctuate from day to day and the daily numbers have increased recently, Idaho Department of Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen said Thursday. But looking at longer-range trends, Idaho’s infection rate is stabilizing. Emergency room and ICU admissions are also trending in the right direction.
But as the state takes a step closer to reopening this weekend, state epidemiologist Christine Hahn cautioned against complacency. And she said Idaho businesses and schools should be better prepared for a second wave of the virus.
“We are very likely … to see an increase in cases in the fall,” she said. “We will be working hard in the coming months to be ready for the fall.”
School budget guidance
Questions about salaries and teacher pay freezes drove the discussion during a State Department of Education post-legislative session and budget guidance webinar Thursday.
SDE leaders offered a sort of super webinar to local school administrators, reworking the traditional post legislative roadshow into a remote webinar. They also added in late-breaking budget guidance and breakdowns to help school officials who are preparing to set next year’s budget.
It was the first major, hands-on outreach to schools since Little confirmed 5 percent budget holdbacks totaling nearly $99 million will be coming in the new budget year that begins July 1.
A major portion of the holdbacks will be accomplished by freezing teachers in place next year on the career ladder salary allocation model. In simple terms, if a teacher was placed on the second cell of the professional rung during the current academic year, that is where they will remain next year.
Tim Hill, associate deputy superintendent for public school finance, emphasized several points as he responded to questions:
- Salaries will continue to be negotiated at the local school district or charter level, just as before.
- The minimum salary will still increase to $40,000 next year, and schools will be required to pay at least that much because the amount is set in law.
- The freeze applies to the amount of money the state sends out to local schools for teacher pay. The freeze is estimated to save $26 million statewide. Districts can still supplement teacher pay with local levy dollars.
- The cuts cannot — and will not — become official until after the new budget year begins July 1, Hill said.
Little released the plan early to give school officials a clearer look at the budget realities they will be faced with during the 2020-21 school year. Many districts are beginning to set those budgets now and have asked for guidance and clarity from the state.
“This is simply a direction at this point, this is not a final decision of the governor through the Board of Examiners,” Hill said.
In last week’s memo, Little said he would issue an executive order shortly after July 1 to make the cuts official.
Education officials highlighted a handful of education bills as well. They covered:
- House Bill 523, which would build out the career ladder and create a new advanced professional endorsement.
- House Bill 624, which would clarify data reporting elements related to performance criteria on the career ladder.
- Senate Concurrent Resolution 120A, which instructs the State Board of Education and the State Department of Education to recommend replacing the Idaho Standards Achievement Test at the high school level.
- Senate Concurrent Resolution 132, which authorizes a new legislative interim committee to recommend replacing academic content standards in math, English and science.
“The Legislature was very clear they wanted to see some changes,” deputy superintendent for communications and policy Marilyn Whitney said.
The Legislative Council will meet June 5 to announce which interim committees will be formed and go forward this year. Whitney said the council did not conduct its traditional meeting at the end of the legislative session due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Next week, SDE staffers plan another webinar to give updated guidance on how schools should count attendance during the extended closures due to the coronavirus pandemic.