West Ada elementary students to return for daily in-person learning next month

The West Ada School Board changed its operations plan again late Tuesday night, voting to send all elementary students K-5 back for in-person learning beginning Nov. 10.

The plan also calls for all students in grades 6-12 to have a remote day of learning on Mondays, then attend in-person classes on alternating days for the rest of the week, also beginning Nov. 10. Elementary students will have an early release day Monday.

Finally, the plan calls for moving away from districtwide decisions on closing schools and moving to remote learning. Instead, trustees empowered Superintendent Mary Ann Ranells to make rapid decisions on closures, down to the individual school building or even classroom level.

The move came at the end of a nearly four-hour meeting where the district’s coronavirus response plan was put under the microscope.

The meeting began with Dr. David Pate, retired president and CEO of St. Luke’s Health System, presenting an independent medical review recommending West Ada School District leaders rewrite their entire health and safety plan.

Trustee Amy Johnson asked Pate during Tuesday’s meeting whether the district could legitimately bring all students back for in-person learning.

“Today? No,” Pate said without hesitating.

Trustees said they want to balance the safety of staff and students with the education needs of children and the preferences of parents who prefer to have their students attending school in-person.

Trustee Rene Ozuna made the push for all K-5 students to return for in-person learning. Earlier, Ranells and district officials recommended K-3 for daily in-person, saying class sizes were higher and would make physical distancing more difficult in grades 4-5.

“I am going to make this motion for what I think is in the best interest of kids,” Ozuna said.

Pate and four other physicians delivered their independent review of West Ada’s plans to Ranells and the school board Friday and then Pate presented it Tuesday.

Pate’s team wrote the district was very thoughtful in its planning and appreciates the importance of a strong plan.

The reviewers then issued 73 specific recommendations, the very first of which was to rewrite the health and safety plan.

“Coming in at 157 pages, the Health and Safety Plan is simply too long to expect that those responsible for implementing it have read the entire document and achieved understanding of what they are to do,” the review team concluded.

“There are a number of opportunities to remove outdated information and extraneous portions or documents that will allow us to create a more streamlined and clearer plan.

Idaho Education News obtained the independent review after filing a public records request with the school district.

The review team included:

  • Pate as lead reviewer.
  • Dr. David Paterman, president and CEO of Primary Health and Medical Group.
  • Dr. Mark Nassir, President of Saint Alphonsus Medical Group.
  • Dr. Steven F. Nemerson, chief clinical officer for Saint Alphonsus Health System.
  • Dr. James Souza, vice president and chief medical officer, St. Luke’s Health System.

The reviewers also recommended against contact sports and warned that caution should be exercised on buses.

“In ‘red,’ we would advise against contact sports or other sports for which students cannot be distanced during practices and games,” they wrote.

The review team also recommended the plans be updated regularly as more information and guidance becomes available.

“Even if there is no definitive evidence that schools are contributing to community spread currently, if cases continue to rise, is there a point that CDH will have to impose stricter guidelines and suspend sports or strongly advise that schools go completely to remote learning? We suspect so,” the review team wrote.

Ranells welcomed Pate’s medical review. The district will prioritize auditing every classroom to see where physical distancing is not possible and to gauge overall compliance with health and safety protocols.

Battling the pandemic has been a divisive battle in West Ada, as it has elsewhere. The district pushed back the first day of school and started virtually, only to see equipment issues and connectivity problems cause problems.

Earlier this month, the school board approved a hybrid learning plan that sends K-12 students back for in-person learning on alternating days.

In response the West Ada Education Association announced a massive teacher sickout that forced the district to abruptly cancel school Oct. 19-20.

A group of parents and the Idaho Freedom Foundation sued the teachers union alleging an illegal strike.

Then, on Friday, the district’s human resources officer said improperly reporting sick leave may violate the district’s negotiated agreement and represent a breach of a teacher’s individual contract.

Meanwhile, teachers said the district leaders have changed the plans they all originally agreed to because they are offering in-person learning in the red as opposed to full remote learning.

Vice Chairman Steve Smylie resigned at the end of Tuesday’s meeting, as expected.

Smylie said trustees are under enormous pressure and being pushed and pulled in all directions.

“When adults fight children lose,” Smylie 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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