The West Ada School District canceled school for a second consecutive day Tuesday as hundreds more teachers requested sick days to protest COVID-19 learning plans at the state’s largest school district.
A pop-up message on the website said there will be no in-person or remote learning Tuesday, including the Virtual School House. A West Ada spokeswoman also confirmed Tuesday’s closure.
“Currently, we have 440 teachers who have called in sick for tomorrow (Tuesday). We are sadly unable to safely hold school tomorrow due to supervision concerns,” district officials wrote in a message sent to parents at 2:15 p.m. Monday.
Schools were already closed Monday due to a massive teacher sickout, organized last week by the West Ada Education Association.
Parents and political groups voiced mixed reactions to the sickout.
The issue boiled over last week as hundreds of teachers requested sick days in an attempt to amplify their message that they don’t feel safe teaching in-person classes.
Last Tuesday Central District Health officials moved West Ada and all Ada County schools from the yellow coronavirus risk level to the red level. CDH uses a three-tier, color-coded system, with red being the highest level of exposure and risk.
When CDH moved West Ada to the red level, public health officials said they support some form of in-person learning, for now. CDH also said physical distancing must be consistently in place throughout the day with in-person learning in the red. Last week, Assistant Superintendent Bret Heller told the school board he can’t guarantee physical distancing will be possible in all buildings.
Both the West Ada and Boise school boards then approved hybrid learning plans that offer in-person instruction for students on alternating days.
Boise moved ahead with its plans and is holding school as planned.
On Friday afternoon, West Ada officials announced Monday’s districtwide closure, citing a shortage of substitutes after 652 teachers called in sick.
Shortly thereafter, the West Ada Education Association encouraged its members to continue requesting sick days for Tuesday. The union’s position is that that district should move to full remote learning under the red designation, as the district did when it delayed the start of the school year and started the year all online.
“We want to work to be able to educate your children in a remote environment so it is safe for everybody in the school,” WAEA President Eric Thies said Friday afternoon.
The issue of teachers requesting a sick day when they are not sick has come up, Thies said. The union felt like it had numerous options available: a protest or walkout, or absences using sick days or personal days. He told Idaho Education News he encouraged members to request sick days in advance because it was a way to telegraph their intentions with advance notice so parents and administrators could plan for teacher absences.
“If there are concerns about that, certainly a mental health day is warranted right now,” Thies said. “Maybe a sick day isn’t the best use? Maybe we need to turn in personal days. But, again, our intention was to let people know what we were planning.”
The bottom line for West Ada is that it does not have enough subs to cover hundreds of teacher sick days. As of Monday, the district has 215 active subs, district spokeswoman Char Jackson said.
West Ada has seen an increase in substitute teaching applications in recent days, Jackson said. But the district must follow application and fingerprinting rules and laws, so parents and recent substitute applicants cannot just cover a classroom. The process takes about 10 business days, Jackson said.
The division over the COVID-19 learning plan is playing out as the virus continues to spread across Idaho. Last week, the state set two grim records for coronavirus cases, including a single-day record Friday.
West Ada is the state’s largest district based on enrollment, serving more than 38,000 K-12 students.
This is a developing story. Check back with Idaho Education News later Monday for more updates.