Idaho’s third-largest district will start the year completely online.
The Nampa School District will also postpone its start date by one week until Aug. 24 and require students and staff to wear masks when they return to school buildings.
“This recommendation is not based on a political leaning, it’s not meant to be a political stance,” said Superintendent Paula Kellerer, as she proposed the online-only reopening. “Even if we made the decision based on bringing our students back half at a time, we would contribute to the spread in our community. And we have no desire to be that type of negative impact in our community.”
The move passed on a unanimous vote hours after trustees heard a bleak health report from local health providers, and pleas from teachers not to threaten the safety of students and staff by returning to school with current levels of COVID-19 spread.
Dr. Jim Souza, chief medical officer for the St. Luke’s health care system, said Canyon County is one of the areas he is most concerned about. Souza said the test-positivity rate in Nampa has reached 25 percent.
“I’m confident that it wouldn’t go well if you were to try to open with this level of activity,” Souza told the school board.
Nampa, like most other Idaho districts, has created a three-tier plan for the 2020-21 school year, based on the spread of coronavirus in the area. Under the lowest, “green” tier of mild spread, students could return to campus, with sanitary procedures and social distancing. “Yellow” signals more severe spread, but would allow school buildings to remain open with enhanced social distancing and a hybrid instructional model with some students on campus and others learning remotely. An entirely remote learning model falls under the “red” category with “extensive community spread” — Nampa’s current situation, trustees concluded Thursday night.
The district plans to move between categories as virus conditions change but will probably remain in red or yellow categories for the rest of the year, Southwest District Health school liaison Kimberly Beckley told trustees. Neighboring Central District Health predicted much the same for Ada, Boise, Valley and Elmore counties earlier this week.
The local teachers’ union encouraged the district to adopt the online-only model, in a letter to trustees Tuesday.
“The teachers of the Nampa School District want to be in our classrooms, with our students,” Nampa Education Association president Eric Maine told the board. “It is our calling. But with that calling comes the realization we must do everything we can to ensure we are not creating more risk by welcoming the students into our classrooms.”
Two Nampa teachers added to that emotional plea Thursday night.
Eighth-grade science teacher Amanda Ferguson told the school board that three of her students have died preventable deaths in her short teaching career. She doesn’t want to add to that list but worries face-to-face learning in Canyon Count at this stage of the pandemic could make that a reality.
Ferguson said she named godparents for her daughter and wrote her will in case she contracts the virus.
“If I could have prevented their deaths, what lengths would I have gone through to do so,” Ferguson said. “So, the idea of going back now, risking their lives and my own… is untenable. It’s not a choice we should be forced to make.”
Trustees also voted unanimously to add the mask mandate for students, with some discussion.
Board chair Kim Rost said she would prefer the district not mandate masks in a “green” level of reopening.
“Am I really saying that I’m always wearing a mask?” Rost said. “In the school-related areas where it’s difficult for little ones, our main point is that communication and teaching.”
Other trustees disagreed.
“I just would hate for us to get to green and not stay in green,” trustee Mandy Simpson said. “Us returning to a yellow or a red after being in green is because possibly we stopped wearing masks. We stopped requiring it.”
Kellerer said masks were “strongly recommended” among students attending summer school in the district. The end result: “Our summer school teachers were clear that ‘strongly recommended’ means ‘not worn,'” Kellerer said.
Trustees could adjust the mask mandate at a later meeting, as the district gets closer to being in the proverbial “green,” Kellerer said.