Little, State Board of Education push for schools to reopen

As coronavirus cases continue to increase in Idaho, Gov. Brad Little and the State Board of Education are encouraging schools to reopen for in-person instruction at the end of the summer.

With the first day of school less than six weeks away, the State Board Thursday unanimously adopted school reopening guidelines that set expectations for students to return to school in the fall.

Gov. Brad Little adjusts his mask during a July 9 press conference at the Statehouse. Photos by Clark Corbin/Idaho Education News

Little then presented the plan during a noon Statehouse news conference.

“We want our students back in school at the end of summer,” Little said at one point. “In the fall I expect Idaho schools to safely reopen for in-person education.”

Little and the State Board’s Public School Reopening Committee developed the plan over the past four weeks, saying they wanted to provide nonbinding guidance for local school officials who are responsible for developing reopening plans.

The guidelines are not requirements or mandates.

State law still allows the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and local health officials to close schools. Little also still has the power to issue another stay-home order, although he said he favors a more local response.

The plan is incomplete in several ways.

  • It does not address civil liability issues surrounding the coronavirus, which school administrators have said is a major obstacle to returning to in-person instruction.
  • It does not address how schools should count student attendance, which drives school funding.
  • It does not address sports, another major obstacle to reopening, other than deferring to the Idaho High School Activities Association for guidance on sports and practice.
  • And it is not intended to provide legal advice.

The encouragement to reopen comes on the heels of a record number of new cases of COVID-19. On Tuesday, the state reported 487 new confirmed and probable cases, resetting the record for the third time in a week.

Depending on the city, some Idaho businesses, including bars, are closed. Large gatherings and concerts are on hold. Some cities mandate masks, others don’t.

On Thursday, Little told reporters he has no plans for a statewide mask order, although Little and the school reopening plan both recommend the use of masks or cloth face coverings.

From the outset, the intention — or at least the desire — is clear.

Little attached a letter to the plan saying, “I expect all our school buildings to safely reopen in the fall for in-person instruction.”

The introduction to the plan says, “It is expected students will return to school buildings in the fall.”

But once you get into the plan itself, the message isn’t as clear cut.

The plan creates three categories of guidelines, based on risk and transmission of the virus. Under two of the three possible scenarios the learning model and recommended response includes either reduced or staggered use of school buildings, or extended school closures.

Here’s the guidance from the plan:

  • Category 1, no community transmission: Traditional learning model, with school buildings open.
  • Category 2, minimal to moderate transmission: Hybrid/blended learning model with limited or staggered use of school buildings, targeted closures or short-term to mid-term closures ranging from one to six weeks. Schools may also choose to employ a traditional learning model or full remote learning model with minimal use of school buildings.
  • Category 3, substantial community transmission: Full distance/remote learning with school buildings closed for extended periods of time longer than six weeks.

Under the plan, local health districts would identify the category of transmission and risk. State epidemiologist Dr. Christine Hahn said the guidance just came out and local public health districts have not yet identified which category local schools will be placed in.

Little, left, and State Board of Education President Debbie Critchfield prepare for Thursday’s news conference.

The plan includes preventative measures school leaders could take, guidance on testing and contract tracing and guidance for masks and face coverings.

Under the plan, masks or face coverings are recommended in Category 1 but not required. Under Category 2, masks or cloth face coverings are recommended for students, staff and visitors. Schools should also provide masks for staff and provide them for others who do not have one but wish to wear one.

State Board President Debbie Critchfield said earlier this week schools should adhere to local mask orders, such as those in place in McCall, Boise, Hailey and other communities.

Little announced the formation of the reopening committee June 17, and charged the members with coming up with guidance to help local school officials develop their own plans. The committee included about 24 members, with representation from school administrators, State Board members, legislators and Central District Health program manager Gina Pannell.

Critchfield headed up the reopening committee and issued a self-imposed June 30 deadline to put a draft of guidance together. She and Little’s education adviser Greg Wilson said they were looking for something in the ballpark of a 10-page document.

View a draft of the guidance below:

 

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]

Read more stories by Clark Corbin »

Republish this article on your website