Omicron and flu season combine to force school closures

(UPDATED, 4:20 p.m. Friday, Jan. 21, with closures in Nampa.)

A surge of COVID-19 cases, fueled by the highly contagious omicron variant, has combined with seasonal illnesses like influenza, forcing Idaho schools to temporarily close.

At least five districts and one school closed last week for a day or two, and at least 11 other schools and districts are closing for parts of this week.

School leaders say illnesses in bus drivers, cooks and teachers have hampered their ability to get kids to school, feed them and teach them.

“It isn’t a matter of us being asleep at the wheel, but it’s a matter of us running out of resources after doing everything that we can,” said Nampa School District spokesperson Kathleen Tuck, following the temporary closure of Nampa’s Owyhee Elementary last week.

Madison Superintendent Randy Lords told EdNews that 60 employees called in sick for the day, with 34 out with cold or flu symptoms and 12 having COVID-19. Another 11 had unspecified illness or were absent for personal reasons.

“In my 20+ years in the district, I can only remember this happening one other time, which was three years ago when eastern Idaho had cold/flu numbers extremely high,” Lords said of the shutdown.

In the smaller Horseshoe Bend School District, 60% of students were absent forcing its elementary school to close for the rest of this week.

One doctor sees the shutdowns as a consequence of schools not requiring masks or taking other precautions to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“The problem is, people don’t want to do anything to mitigate the risks, but they want everybody to be in school. Well, that doesn’t work,” said former St. Luke’s Health System CEO David Pate.

In 2020, both influenza and Respiratory Syncytial Virus, two commonly circulating infectious diseases, declined, StatNews reported. Pate says that’s no coincidence that more people wore masks then. Now, both infectious diseases have resurged — along with COVID-19 — threatening schools’ abilities to operate with adequate staffing levels.

Even mask requirements haven’t been able to thwart all closures. The McCall-Donnelly School District, which requires masks, closed for two days last week when it didn’t have enough bus drivers. The district currently requires masks, but officials lift the mandate when COVID-19 metrics improve.

The Boise School District has discussed the possibility of shifting some instruction online should that be necessary in the future. School leaders have briefed board members on contingency plans that include a possible phased approach to online learning, should that be necessary.

The return to school after the holidays collides with rapidly worsening coronavirus metrics. New cases reached record highs last week, as Idaho EdNews reported. Infections are being reported so fast that state officials are behind on counting 22,000 new test results. About one in every four tests in Idaho in the first week of January came back positive for the coronavirus, shattering previous records.

Here’s a closer look at what is happening in some districts:

Bonneville School District, East Idaho’s largest, closed its elementary schools Friday, Jan. 14, and shifted middle and high schools to virtual learning. The district expected at least 125 staff absences Friday, according to a letter to families. It stretched past the point of shuffling teachers and paraprofessionals around to fill jobs for the day, the letter said. The letter did not specify COVID-19 as a cause behind the closure, but it said staff and students “are expected to wear masks at school.”

The district also asked people to substitute. Seek more information by emailing Nancy Peterson at [email protected] or calling (208) 557-6821. “We are likely looking at longer extended closures if we do not have more people available to help substitute, even on a short-term basis,” the letter said.

Caldwell School District shut down Thursday and Friday, Jan. 13 and 14, to give a five-day window for quarantining in line with new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, superintendent Shalene French told board members at an emergency meeting Thursday. That’s after the school nurse reported that 33% of COVID-19 tests taken at the district returned positive, French said.

It was becoming “dicey” to operate schools safely with adequate staffing levels, French added. At one middle school, seven different classes sat in a cafeteria during their class period because of low substitute teacher fill rates. Absences in staffing areas across the board — from secretarial staff to food preparation — are interfering with school operations.

Three schools in the district require masks, French said.

Pocatello-Chubbuck School District announced a single-day closure for Friday, Jan. 21, following a surge in staff and student absences.

Nearly 100 staff had called in absent since Tuesday, Fisher wrote in a press release about the closure Thursday night. The number “increased daily” throughout the week.

The district expects classes to resume Monday, Jan. 24, but will update parents if that changes.

Twin Falls School District closed all schools Friday, Jan. 21, due to staff shortages, spokesperson Eva Craner told media outlets in an email.

The announcement said “healthy staff will report to school for planning and preparation in the coming weeks.” The district also adjusted early release times for Jan. 24 and 31, which can be found at this link.

Staff will use the extra time to give materials to sick students and fill staff absences, the notice said.

Jefferson School District closed Friday, Jan. 14, because of high staff absences, according to a letter sent to parents. School remained closed Monday, Jan. 17, for a pre-planned teacher professional day. To fill all positions on Friday, public relations coordinator Monica Pauley told EdNews that the district would have needed twice as many substitutes, between 50 and 60, than it normally can fill.

“It’s a combination of the flu and COVID right now,” Pauley said.

The district is covering the roughly $30 background check fee for substitute teacher applications as it seeks more subs, she said. The district encouraged people to apply at this link.

Madison School District closed Friday, Jan. 14, because of a staff shortage, according to an email sent to employees and families. Superintendent Randy Lords told EdNews that 60 employees called in sick for the day, with 34 out with cold or flu symptoms and 12 having COVID-19. Another 11 had unspecified illness or personal reasons and three went into labor, he said.

The McCall-Donnelly School District was closed Monday and Tuesday, Jan. 10 and 11, because not enough staff were available to drive school busses. Staff were already short earlier in the school year, when the district combined a route, Superintendent Eric Pingrey told EdNews. But the issues came to a tee this week when staff called out sick to take care of COVID-19-positive family members, sought to get tested themselves and took time off for bereavement leave and doctor’s appointments, he said.

“It was a combination of events,” Pingrey said.

The district’s board requires staff and students to wear masks at school. It is one of few Idaho districts with a district-wide mask mandate in place nearly two years into the pandemic.

Owyhee Elementary in Nampa School District closed Friday, Jan. 14, with 37% of staff absent, district spokeswoman Kathleen Tuck told EdNews. Half of the 10 employees who were out had tested positive for COVID-19, Tuck said.

Across the district, up to 150 employees were expected to be out Friday, Tuck said. Typically, the district can only fill 80 or 90 positions with substitutes — leaving other jobs to be filled by other employees, she said.

In some hard-hit schools, the district has required staff to wear masks, Tuck said.

Horseshoe Bend School District closed elementary school classes from Tuesday to Thursday, Jan. 18 to Jan. 20. The district said in a Facebook post staff and substitute shortages caused the shutdown in the school, where nearly 60% of students were absent.

Chief Tahgee Elementary Academy in Fort Hall closed Tuesday, Jan. 18 through Friday, Jan. 21, “due to (a) rapid increase of COVID-19 cases,” the district’s website says. KPVI reported that officials closed the school based on a recommendation from the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes.

Wilder School District has moved all schools to virtual learning, the district announced Wednesday, Jan. 19. The post said the district will notify parents by Sunday evening on whether the school will remain online.

The district moved its middle and high school to remote learning Tuesday, Jan. 18, until week’s end, according to the district website. The district cited staff shortages and rising positivity rates as causes in the first announcement.

Fruitland School District closed schools Thursday and Friday, Jan. 20 and 21, after “a substantial increase in student and staff sickness throughout all schools this week,” the district announced on Facebook. Students will not learn remotely during the closure. In-person instruction is planned to resume on Monday. Custodians will disinfect buildings while school is out this week, the district said.

Nampa School District announced closures the following closures Friday:

  • Nampa Early Childhood Learning Center: Monday and Tuesday, Jan. 24 and Jan. 25.
  • Gateways: Monday, Jan. 24, through Friday, Jan. 28.
  • Reagan Elementary: Monday, Jan. 24, through Friday, Jan. 28.
  • Lake Ridge Elementary: Monday, Jan. 24, through Friday, Jan. 28.
  • Lone Star Middle School: Monday, Jan. 24 through Friday, Jan. 28.

Teachers will provide expectations for students for the week.

“We are continuing to watch other schools that have experienced high staff absentee rates and will keep families informed if additional closures are needed,” the district announced Friday. Centennial Elementary, New Horizons Dual Language and East Valley Middle School will reopen on Monday, Jan. 24 as planned.

The district also closed classes in five schools from Wednesday, Jan. 12 to Friday, Jan. 14. Those included: New Horizons Dual Language School, Gateways, East Valley Middle School and Centennial Elementary School. These schools will reopen on Monday, Jan. 24, as planned.

“We have deployed all available staff and had numerous volunteers step up to assist in covering classrooms and duties, but we are still short of meeting our needs,” the district announced Friday.

Blackfoot Charter Community Learning Center moved to virtual learning from Tuesday, Jan. 18 to Thursday, Jan. 27, after high staff and student absences. The center said schools will resume in-person classes Jan. 31.

Other schools are bracing for possible shifts to remote learning.

Boise State University’s infections have surpassed record highs the past two weeks, with 179 last week before doubling to 366 this week. An administrator recently told campus members to brace for some classes and services to potentially and temporarily shift from in-person to remote or hybrid.

“With each new variant, we should expect intermittent disruptions over the coming months and even years. We continue to work to balance maintaining work, school and campus activities and operations with taking appropriate precautions to safeguard the health and wellbeing of our community,” BSU Vice President for University Affairs and Chief of Staff Alicia Estey said in an email to faculty and staff on Wednesday. Estey said the university does not plan to take all classes online.

The Boise School District has debuted pandemic operation changes that outline a phased approach to remote-learning, if necessary. The plan calls for first shifting individual classrooms, then entire schools and then grade levels to remote instruction temporarily.

“The last group that we would probably touch in this would be the elementary (schools),” said Brian Walker, an area director for the district.

The final option is to enact district-wide remote learning.

Kyle Pfannenstiel

Kyle Pfannenstiel

Reporter Kyle Pfannenstiel covers the implementation of policy in Idaho’s K-12 public school system. He’s a military brat and former health care reporter who holds degrees in Journalism and Political Science from University of Idaho. Follow Kyle on Twitter @pfannyyy. He can be reached at [email protected].

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