West Ada delays school year — and pushes for some face-to-face classes

(UPDATED, 4:44 p.m. Thursday, with comment from West Ada spokeswoman Char Jackson.)

Idaho’s largest district has postponed the start of the school year.

And West Ada School District trustees want to get students into the classroom for at least part of the school year — a push that, for now, runs counter to recommendations from local health officials. But on Thursday, district officials clarified and walked back their reopening plan, saying the goal is to foster small group learning.

West Ada trustees voted Tuesday evening to move the first day of the school year to Sept. 8 — a 12-day delay from the district’s original Aug. 27 start date.

“None of this has been easy and there are no easy answers,” deputy superintendent Bret Heller said during a board meeting Tuesday afternoon. “We don’t make the recommendation lightly.”

But Heller said the delay would accomplish several purposes: It would give teachers more time to draw up individualized learning plans for special-needs students. It would give the district more time to roll out its one-to-one technology program, and put computers in the hands of students learning from home. And it would allow West Ada to respond to the changing face of the coronavirus pandemic.

The delay in the start of the school year is relatively cut and dried. The more complicated question is what that new school year looks like.

On Monday, Central District Health issued a grim prognosis for the opening of the 2020-21 school year. In the first of its weekly assessments of the valley’s coronavirus outbreak, the health district reported substantial community spread in Ada County. The health district’s “Category 3” designation carries a recommendation to close schools and move all instruction online.

That’s just a recommendation, however. It’s still up to school districts, such as West Ada, to write up their school reopening plans.

And in a unanimous vote Tuesday, West Ada trustees made a significant change to their fall reopening plan.

They rewrote the “red light” status in West Ada’s fall reopening plan — the status the district will use during a period of substantial coronavirus spread. Originally, the red light status called for closing schools, sending West Ada’s 40,000 students home to learn remotely.

As amended, the “red light” status would now give West Ada the option of offering blended learning — with students attending class every other school day. In other words, that could mean the district’s schools would be open part time, despite the health district’s recommendations.

On Thursday, district spokeswoman Char Jackson said the plan would allow schools to bring in students for small group learning — such as special education students or English language learners, or Advanced Placement or career-technical education programs.

During a five-hour discussion Tuesday afternoon, however, the tone was decidedly different. Trustees made it clear they wanted to avoid going online-only.

“I am concerned about what happens with our students … if we go 100 percent remote,” trustee Rene Ozuna said.

“If we’re forced to do it, we’re forced to do it,” trustee Steve Smylie said.

District leaders supported the move.

With students attending class every other day, schools should be able to accommodate students without spreading coronavirus, Heller said.

By postponing the start of the school year, the district will have several weeks to track the coronavirus before making decisions about the first day of school, Superintendent Mary Ann Ranells said.  “We still have time to see what happens within the community.”

The signals are mixed. On Tuesday, the Department of Health and Welfare reported 211 new confirmed or probable coronavirus cases in Ada County. Since June, coronavirus case numbers have skyrocketed in Ada County, and much of the state — although the Ada County numbers are beginning to show some signs of tapering off.

Ultimately, West Ada officials are hoping the numbers flatten — so Central District Health bumps Ada County to a “Category 2” designation, denoting minimal to moderate virus transmission.

A Category 2 designation, in turn, lines up with the “yellow light” status in the West Ada reopening plan — which calls for blended learning.

West Ada trustees will meet again on Aug. 25, to decide whether to start the school year with the blended learning approach or an online-only learning plan.

Several other Treasure Valley school districts have already decided to go online this fall — to varying degrees:

Check back with Idaho Education News Tuesday night for coverage of the Boise School Board meeting.


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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