Gov. Brad Little said he is concerned by the rising numbers of coronavirus cases in Idaho’s K-12 system.
However, Little said he sees no need to deviate from Idaho’s current approach — which allows school districts and charters to make local school opening decisions.
Coronavirus cases numbers have increased sharply among school-aged children, at rates that outpace even the state’s overall spike in cases. On Wednesday, the state reported more than 4,300 cases involving children aged 5 to 17, a number that has doubled in the past two months. Idaho Education News reported Wednesday on these increases, which correlate with the opening of schools.
While numbers are spiking statewide, Little tried to put the trends into perspective during a Statehouse news conference Thursday. Some schools have reported no coronavirus cases — even in the West Ada School District, where teachers are threatening a sickout to protest plans for face-to-face learning.
“It’s almost a building-by-building issue,” Little said of the degree of school outbreaks.
Little said he has avoided mandating school closures. His State Board of Education imposed a school closure in March, but only after most districts had decided to close in response to the emerging pandemic. He said he has only ordered one school closure, in Blaine County, during a rapid outbreak in the spring.
Little also said he is open to taking steps to alleviate the funding pressure on higher education. This week, Boise State University announced faculty furloughs, the latest in a series of job cuts and pay cuts on the state’s campuses. James Dawson of Boise State Public Radio reported on the furloughs Thursday.
“I’m not discounting the urgency and the crisis level for higher education,” Little said.
Like all state agencies, higher education sustained a 5 percent budget cut in July. The $15 million cut for higher education remains intact — and in fact, the Little administration applies these agency cuts towards a projected $537 million budget surplus.
Thursday marked Little’s 29th news conference on the coronavirus pandemic in the past seven months.
And the session hit upon two familiar themes.
First, Little said the state would remain in stage four of his four-step business reopening plan. The designation doesn’t affect K-12 or higher education operations directly. But the fact that Idaho has remained stuck in stage four since June illustrates the state’s ongoing struggle to stem the coronavirus outbreak.
Currently, 219 Idahoans are hospitalized with COVID-19, and 56 patients are in ICUs. Idaho wants to get ICU admissions down to 25 before making a move out of stage four, state epidemiologist Christine Hahn said Thursday.
Second, Little made another appeal to Idahoans to shake off “COVID fatigue” and continue to take preventative steps to limit the spread of the virus. He again rejected the suggestion of a statewide mask mandate, but urged Idahoans to wear masks, wash their hands frequently and maintain social distancing.
“This is about personal responsibility — something Idaho is all about,” Little said.