Shutdown order poses daunting challenges for local educators

A statewide K-12 school closure provides parents and students a sense of what to expect over the next four weeks.

But the shutdown also presents a daunting assignment to school leaders and teachers. Pivot to online learning. Deliver essential services, such as school lunch and special education. And prepare for the unknown, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We can’t view this as a pause in the school year,” said Scott Maben, a spokesman for the Coeur d’Alene School District. “It’s a major disruption to how we normally teach children, and so we must be innovative in adjusting to this so real learning can continue.”

After a turbulent eight days — when Gov. Brad Little recommended keeping schools open, but many school leaders opted to close anyway — the State Board of Education stepped in late Monday afternoon. The board’s “soft closure” declared school facilities off-limits to students until April 20, marking Idaho’s most sweeping statewide attempt to slow the coronavirus.

But the State Board order still leaves local school leaders with some big decisions.

In Blaine County — the Idaho community hardest hit by the coronavirus outbreak —  trustees will meet Monday night. In light of the State Board decision, the district says it “will be considering the extension of school closures.” Blaine County was one of the first school districts to announce a shutdown — a March 14 decision that came hours after health officials reported the county’s first coronavirus case. Now superseded by the State Board’s order, Blaine County’s shutdown covered a three-week window ending April 6.

Blaine County trustees will meet remotely at 5:30 p.m. “All interested persons are invited to attend the March 30 meeting through an Internet platform that is being tested at the present time,” the district said Tuesday.

For Blaine County — and districts across the state — one big decision is how to make the shift to online learning, a sudden transition that would have been unimaginable weeks ago. While the State Board closure shuts down school facilities, it doesn’t shut down the schools entirely. Schools are still expected to provide “essential services,” which includes some form of remote education.

Some schools were already planning the move. Last week, the Nampa School District announced plans to jump into online instruction on March 31, one day after the end of spring break. Superintendents were “very involved” in pushing for Monday’s decision, Nampa district spokeswoman Kathleen Tuck said, and the four-week closure complements Nampa’s decision to go online.

In Twin Falls, online learning also will begin next week. It will be a shortened schedule: 2 ½ hours a day for kindergartners, four hours a day for elementary and secondary students. Like other districts, Twin Falls is working to overcome access issues — launching a Chromebooks checkout plan next week, and allowing students to log onto the Internet from school parking lots.

The Boise School District is wrestling with similar challenges. “In the next few days, we will announce how we intend to ensure that learning continues online and with paper resources if families do not have Internet access,” spokesman Ryan Hill said. “We are also working to try to provide computer and internet access for families in need.”

West Ada, the state’s largest school district, is using its spring break to work out the details of an online learning plan. The extended closure underscores the sense of urgency, spokesman Eric Exline said Tuesday.

“Our parents have shared their concerns about their kids losing school time,” he said. “Parents and students at the high school level are concerned about credits, graduation, concurrent credits, (Advanced Placement and (International Baccalaureate) testing. We are working on a plan to address these concerns. We will need it with schools being closed for four weeks.”

The State Board order requires schools to continue to provide other essential services: special education, meal services for underserved students and child care “for community members who provide critical services.”

Meeting those needs creatively will be a challenge.

“I suppose the hope is that this ‘pause’ can be a mutual reminder to school leaders, parents, students and patrons how essential public schools are in their communities,” said Quinn Perry, policy and government affairs director for the Idaho School Boards Association.

The ISBA is neutral on the shutdown, Perry said, reflecting some of the mixed messages the group has received from membership statewide.

“We understand that districts have been getting a ton of pressure from staff, patrons, parents, and students to close their doors,” Perry said in an email Tuesday. “I do believe that some districts/schools appreciate the direction from the state – however, I’ll admit that it took us a while to determine if the action from the State Board yesterday was a ‘mandate’ or ‘recommendation.’”

While Monday’s State Board decision is a mandate — similar to closures in 46 other states, according to Education Week — the board’s toughest decisions might be yet to come. It will be difficult to decide when to allow schools to reopen, especially in areas that are not experiencing a “community spread” of the contagious coronavirus, State Board President Debbie Critchfield said Monday.

The Idaho Education Association praised Monday’s State Board decision, which came eight days after the union urged Little to close schools statewide. Now, IEA President Layne McInelly wants to see teachers and school leaders working on “realistic” learning plans that make student and staff safety a priority.

“Closing until April 20 is an appropriate step for the time being, but the most realistic expectation is that the COVID-19 crisis will be a long-term situation,” he said. “The trajectory of the virus and the scientific guidance around social distancing could make it very difficult for students to return to the classroom in the foreseeable future.”


Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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