Wallace and other small districts keep schools open for now

More than 50 percent of the students in North Idaho’s Wallace School District qualify for free-and-reduced-priced lunch. If everyone filled out the paperwork, superintendent Bob Ranells estimates that number might be closer to 85 percent.

The 470-something students in the Silver Valley district rely on schools for two meals a day, computers and some of the best internet in the valley, Ranells said.

That’s why he’s not planning to send them home to protect against a virus that hasn’t threatened his community, his county, or been confirmed in Northern Idaho so far. Not yet.

“We have a clean, safe place for children to be where we can feed them two meals a day,” Ranells said.

As Idaho has confirmed its first eight cases of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus sweeping the globe, districts across the state  have announced they’re closing, in an attempt to slow the spread of the disease.

The school closure announcements started to snowball after a Sunday conference call, where Dave Jeppesen, the state’s Health and Welfare Director, urged schools to remain open for the time being but said he realized they might be facing local pressure to close. Governors of bordering states Washington, Oregon and Utah have ordered school closures statewide.

Idaho’s Gov. Brad Little left that call up to each individual district. Within hours a dozen districts announced plans to close, including the state’s largest, West Ada, which abruptly changed course after parents and staff raised concerns about the district’s announcement it would stay open. West Ada Superintendent Mary Ann Ranells is Bob’s wife.

On Monday, President Donald Trump suggested Americans avoid gatherings of more than 10 people, nudging the snowballing closures into an avalanche. By midday Tuesday, the majority of Idaho districts announced plans to close their doors early or to extend their  upcoming spring break.

As EdNews contacted the districts that remained open, from Weiser to Aberdeen, district officials announced they were actually going to close, either in response to federal guidance or local conditions.

“When the president came out and said groups of 10, we thought: OK we’re going to have to change our view,” said Jane Ward, Aberdeen superintendent. Instead of closing for spring break on Monday, March 23, as planned, Aberdeen district officials are closing up shop on Thursday of this week.

Ranells isn’t ready to shut down early.

Bob Ranells and his wife Mary Ann Ranells, the superintendent of the West Ada School District

So far, the Silver Valley doesn’t have a single confirmed case of COVID-19, Ranells said.  And he’s looking to guidance from the Centers of Disease Control that suggests short-term school closures, especially in the early-stages of widespread infection, likely won’t slow the spread of the virus. More effective closures, the CDC said, are eight weeks or longer.

“I’m open minded enough that if the Governor were to call a shutdown across the state, we’d be right there in compliance,” Ranells said. “Right now, until in the Silver Valley there is a greater driving force than  exists at this moment, we’re going to remain open.”

Ranells said area leaders are behind him. County and city officials have urged him to stay the course, he said, unless conditions change.

In a letter posted to the district website on Tuesday, Ranells assured parents and patrons that he’s in contact with the governor’s office, the Idaho School Boards Association, the local health district and surrounding school districts. He’s monitoring the situation and trying to make the best decisions for kids during “very fluid times.”

“I know there are people who are saying ‘just because everybody else is doing something, we maybe oughta be doing that,'” Ranells said. “I don’t operate that way. We’re going to take our situation and focus in on what’s best for our children and community.”

Still open:

According to information online, the following districts are open until further notice:

Sami Edge

About Sami Edge

Reporter Sami Edge, a University of Oregon graduate, joined Idaho Education News in 2019. She is a 2019 Education Writers Association fellow reporting on Latino student outcomes in Idaho. She also is a 2019 American Press Institute fellow. She can be reached at [email protected].

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