West Ada ends COVID exposure notifications to families

West Ada, Idaho’s largest school district, will no longer notify students when their classroom peers test positive for COVID-19.

Trustees voted 3-2 Monday to nix the requirement. The three newcomer board members — Lori Frasure, Angie Redford and Rusty Coffelt — approved the move. Trustees Amy Johnson and Rene Ozuna opposed it.

Supporters of ending the practice said many people already assume that they’re exposed to the coronavirus when they complete activities outside their homes, such as grocery shopping. That’s because COVID-19 cases have risen to new highs lately, they said, and about one-third of Idahoans seeking tests have the virus. The district’s top administrator echoed that stance.

“Right now, I think it’s a fair expectation, with the spread at the level it is, that you have been exposed if you have been outside your house,” Superintendent Derek Bub told trustees Monday. “And even inside your house — I hate to say it — you have been exposed.”

Ending exposure notifications would save administrative staff time, Bub said. “Administrators are instructional leaders, so giving them an extra five minutes to get back in the classroom and lead instruction is always welcome.”

Several officials noted parents sometimes receive multiple exposure notices a day if their child was in multiple classes with the same infectious student. The notifications do not specify how close the students were to each other.

The board may revisit whether the district should notify parents of cases in classrooms, said Frasure, who presented the motion to end the notifications.

Both Johnson and Ozuna worried families who benefit from the notices would lose out. Ozuna said that information is especially helpful for decision-making in families with medically vulnerable people.

“For people that don’t care, you could certainly ignore it,” Ozuna said. “For people that do care, they certainly need the information.”

Expressing concern about exposure notifications, Redford questioned “if they are doing more harm than good.” She said several parents have told her in emails that the notices spark “sheer panic.”

“It’s time to just move forward. Let’s have some consistency,” Redford said, adding that Emmett and Melba school districts are not requiring masks or tracking cases. “I think this variant is just going to burn itself out. It’s fast and furious.”

Coffelt, elected as board chair this month on a split vote, said “we’re doing more harm than good.”

“I think we’ve reached the point that this dashboard, this emailing to families — we’re feeding into the fear,” Coffelt added.

Redford said she supports a system that allows parents to opt in to receiving notifications, but Bub said that would be “extremely difficult to manage.”

The district shifted from contact tracing to notifying parents when their children were in class with someone with COVID-19 to save time, Ozuna said.

West Ada’s decision came the same day as the state’s top health official reactivated hospital crisis standards of care for facilities in southern Idaho, citing staffing constraints.

Medical professionals pushed back on West Ada’s decision on social media.

Dr. David Pate, former CEO of St. Luke’s Health System, reacted to a tweet about the decision by saying: “The height of irresponsibility.”

Brad Bigford, a nurse practitioner who owns Table Rock Mobile Medicine in the Treasure Valley, said on Twitter that the move “takes away the rights of vulnerable children with risk factors (leukemia, on chemotherapy, etc.) from safely attending school.”

The West Ada board also voted Monday to request that the district begin forming an endemic COVID-19 operation plan. Last week, the West Ada teacher’s union sent out a statement calling for increased transparency in how the district reports COVID-19 cases, as Idaho Education News reported.

Caldwell School District’s board on Monday reinstated a temporary mask mandate for students and staff as it faces high absence rates amid the COVID-19 surge.

Kyle Pfannenstiel

Kyle Pfannenstiel

Reporter Kyle Pfannenstiel covers the implementation of policy in Idaho’s K-12 public school system. He’s a military brat and former health care reporter who holds degrees in Journalism and Political Science from University of Idaho. Follow Kyle on Twitter @pfannyyy. He can be reached at [email protected].

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