Reopening schools revolves around two issues, says district health program manager

Central District Health program manager Gina Pannell says the science of reopening Idaho’s schools revolves around two main issues: the need to get kids back in the classroom and how it could impact public health.

For Pannell, the first issue is much more clearcut than the second.

“Students need to be in school,” said Pannell, who’s also CDH’s school liaison in Ada, Boise, Elmore, and Valley counties.

The benefits of in-person instruction transcend learning, she added, referencing the nearly half of Idaho’s 310,000 K-12 students who rely daily on public schools for free and reduced-price meals. Counseling services and peer-to-peer interaction are also among the “huge” benefits kids gain from being in school.

With the school year around the corner, local K-12 leaders are working with area health officials, including Pannell, to review data, shape reopening plans and, where possible, get kids back into the classroom.

Yet Pannell’s other concern regarding the science of reopening schools — how face-to-face learning could affect public health and the state’s bout with a lingering pandemic — is much harder to gauge.

“None of the research is 100 percent solid at this point,” she told EdNews last week.

Mixed outlook for getting kids back in schools

Amid a surge of coronavirus cases in Idaho since June, both Gov. Brad Little and President Donald Trump expressed expectations that kids return to the classroom in person. Little added a nuance recently. One day after Idaho reported its highest daily death toll from the coronavirus, he’s not sure full re-openings can happen in Idaho’s coronavirus hotspots.

And they won’t in several school districts. Increased cases of COVID-19 in Ada and Canyon counties have left Idaho’s larger districts scrambling to shape — and reshape — their reopening plans to incorporate remote learning.

  • The Nampa district announced Thursday that it will open its school year with a fully online learning model.
  • Kuna Superintendent Wendy Johnson told patrons Wednesday that students there will return this fall with a mix of in-person and remote instruction.
  • The Caldwell School District decided last week to delay its reopening date and start school with a blended model of its own.
  • The Boise School District, which in June released a plan to reopen with in-person classes, will reconsider that decision Monday night. Boise Superintendent Coby Dennis said Wednesday that face-to-face classes have become “a bit more unlikely” for the district in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, administrators in more rural areas are gearing up for face-to-face learning. The Madison and West Side districts — where confirmed cases combine for 139, as opposed to Ada County’s more than 7,000 — will allow kids to return for in-person learning next month, with various health precautions in place.

Other districts, including Bonneville and Pocatello-Chubbuck, haven’t ruled out in-person instruction but are shaping plans around COVID-19’s local impacts.

Not a ‘political stance’

A remote-learning emphasis in districts with more cases of coronavirus, and face-to-face models in those with fewer cases, reflect efforts to shape decisions around local health scenarios.

Superintendents stress the role local data plays in the process.

West Side’s Spencer Barzee has referenced the relatively low number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in his rural and remote district — and his view that distance learning isn’t ideal. 

“Online learning as the primary method is not what is best for our students,” Barzee told Idaho Education News last month.

But every district isn’t West Side, which enrolls around 750 kids in rural Southeast Idaho. And health scenarios can vary sharply from community to community.

Nampa’s 25 percent coronavirus test-positivity rate factored heavily in trustees’ decision to move instruction online. Superintendent Paula Kellerer stressed that the numbers, not politics, drove the discussion.

“This recommendation is not based on a political leaning. It’s not meant to be a political stance,” Kellerer said. “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.”

With the school year weeks away, Pannell and public health officials in Idaho’s six other health districts are working with K-12 leaders to present more data aimed at helping schools understand where they fall on a tiered system based on the severity of COVID spread.

CDH says it will begin publishing guidelines based on that system for schools in its area to refer to starting this week.

‘We won’t know for years’

Despite the emphasis on data, a broader reality hangs over the efforts — and anguish — of back-to-school 2020-21: a lack of consensus about how reopening classrooms will impact public health.

Like other states, Idaho shuttered its schools amid the first wave of coronavirus infections. A full picture of the impact of letting students return is yet to be seen.

And understanding the full range of impacts could take a while — even as Idaho’s confirmed or probable cases of coronavirus surpass 20,333 and deaths from COVID-19 surpass 179.

“We won’t likely know for years,” said Pannell.

The New York Times Magazine last week underscored the lingering lack of a nationwide consensus about reopening schools.

On top of limited data resulting from last year’s closures, much of the research is preliminary.

Some consensus exists that kids under 10 years old are less likely to contract and spread the disease. But research gathered to make that determination doesn’t include contact tracing over time and randomized testing.

It’s also still unclear how hard-to-identify asymptomatic children spread the disease, which begs the question: How will a return to school for kids impact teachers? How will things shake out in the state’s middle schools and high schools, where students are potentially more prone to catch and spread the disease?

Pannell acknowledged a range of unknowns but worries about the wide-ranging repercussions keeping kids out of schools could have.

“I’m not sure we can wait that long,” she said, reemphasizing the need for things like wearing masks and washing hands.

Others see things differently.

Amanda Ferguson, a science teacher in the Nampa district, testified during a recent school board meeting about three “preventable” deaths of prior students.

Face-to-face learning in Canyon County at this stage of the pandemic could make losing more students a reality, Ferguson worries.

“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.”

Devin Bodkin

About Devin Bodkin

Reporter Devin Bodkin covers education issues in East Idaho. He is a former high school English teacher who specializes in stories about charter schools and educating students who live in poverty. He is a 2019 Solutions Journalism Network fellow and the Idaho Press Club's 2019 print reporter of the year. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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