Little’s school reopening committee plans to release guidance Thursday

Sports could be another obstacle to reopening next month as Gov. Brad Little’s Public School Reopening Committee sets its sights on issuing its nonbinding guidance Thursday.

That sets up Thursday as a significant date in Idaho’s response to the coronavirus. Little scheduled a noon news conference to discuss the school reopening plan and Idaho’s status in stage four of the four-stage Idaho Rebounds business reopening plan.

During an 8 a.m. meeting Monday, the reopening committee inched closer to finalizing a draft of guidelines that local school officials could use to help inform their own decisions.

Sports, contact and travel for competition between schools and districts  raise questions for public health officials tracking and attempting to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.

“I don’t know how we’re going to keep schools in person if we intermingle school districts with sports,” said Gina Pannell, Central District Health program manager. “We don’t want people shouting, let alone people playing sports next to each other, because of the risk of exposure.”

The committee might leave the decision on sports to the Idaho High School Activities Association.

As the virus has spread through Idaho, Little has made school reopening this fall a top priority.

Across the state, parents and many school administrators want a traditional return.

Some districts have already announced their fall reopening plans. For some, classes start in six weeks. Teachers and staff members — traditionally at least — would return even earlier.

Originally, reopening committee leaders set a June 30 goal to issue a draft of their guidelines. Committee leaders cancelled a July 2 meeting, saying they needed to fill some holes in the plan.

Debbie Critchfield

State Board of Education President Debbie Critchfield and Little’s education adviser Greg Wilson said they hope to have a draft done Tuesday or Wednesday and then present it during a potential special State Board of Education meeting Thursday.

As of 4:30 p.m. Monday, State Board officials have not formally announced such a meeting.

Although the State Board has said local school administrators are empowered to develop their own reopening plans, the overall picture is a little more complicated.

Idaho law still allows public health districts and the State Board to order schools closed.

Depending on what happens in the future, Little could still issue a stay-home order.

Counties may issue closures or limit group sizes.

And schools would need to comply with local mask orders, such as those in place in McCall, Moscow, Hailey, Boise and Driggs, Critchfield said.

West Side School District Superintendent Spencer Barzee has already publicly released his district’s reopening plan. During Monday’s meeting, he expressed some surprise that outside restrictions could still be placed on reopening.

“I guess I didn’t realize that we could have that obstacle as well that the Department Health and Welfare could tell us to shut our doors too,” he said.

Barzee said local school officials like himself, not public health officials, should be able to determine how serious transmission is at the district level.

“What my board views as minimal to moderate may be different than what the health department views as minimal to moderate,” he said.

“I don’t want the guidance to be too specific on defining what’s minimal to moderate. I personally want to be able to define that because 15 households out of 350 is pretty mild. I mean it’s not even moderate.”

Little has said he would consider calling a special session of the Legislature to address civil liability issues for schools that reopen. As of Monday afternoon, Little was still looking into the issue and has not made a decision, Wilson said.

 

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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