In Blaine County, the epicenter of Idaho’s coronavirus outbreak, school officials are resigned to locking their doors for the year.
In Madison County, an area with only a handful of coronavirus cases, Superintendent Geoffrey Thomas hopes to reopen school later this spring.
The State Board of Education voted Monday to keep Idaho’s schools closed for the near future, in a historic state response to the global coronavirus pandemic. But as health officials continue to track Idaho’s numbers — nearly 1,200 coronavirus cases and 13 deaths, as of Tuesday — the board left the state’s school doors ajar.
Districts and charters could still choose to reopen this academic year, but it won’t be easy. Local health officials will have to sign on, and local social distancing restrictions will need to be lifted. And schools will have to meet other guidelines that haven’t even been written up yet.
Thomas wants to see those guidelines, which the State Board will discuss at its next meeting Monday. But he remains optimistic.
“Online learning is a valuable approach, but I am a firm believer that the best teaching and learning is face-to-face in a classroom setting,” Thomas said in an email. “Thus, I would like the students to come back and reconnect with their teachers, and for the seniors to have a positive closure to their final year at school.”
During a board meeting last week, some Blaine County trustees said it was too early to abandon hope of reopening school. But after Monday’s State Board meeting, district leaders struck a different tone.
“Our buildings will remain closed through the rest of this school year and all instruction will be delivered through our distance learning program,” Superintendent GwenCarol Holmes and board chairman R. Keith Roark said in a joint statement Tuesday morning.
Blaine County isn’t alone. Middleton is planning to stick with its online learning program through the rest of the school year. And in districts as large as Coeur d’Alene and as small as Homedale, staffers are operating on the notion that it might be necessary to keep schools closed until next fall.
Monday’s State Board decision was, in part, a nod to local control. After imposing a statewide four-week closure last month, the State Board wanted to give local administrators some say in the matter.
The decision also reflected a hopeful reading of recent coronavirus case numbers. The state’s coronavirus caseload continues to rise, but after some sharp daily increases last week, the rate of increase has tapered over the past four days.
“It’s important we give some consideration to areas in the state in which there is little or no evidence of the COVID-19,” board member Emma Atchley said Monday.
Atchley lives in Eastern Idaho’s rural Fremont County, which has reported only two confirmed coronavirus cases. To the south, Thomas’ Madison County has reported only five confirmed cases.
These low numbers stand in stark contrast to Blaine County — which has counted more than 400 confirmed coronavirus cases, an infection rate among the highest in the world. About an hour to the south, Twin Falls County has logged more than 50 confirmed cases, and Twin Falls School District officials are telling parents, students and staff to plan on remote learning through the rest of the academic year.
“It will likely be difficult for us to meet (state) reopening criteria,” district officials told patrons Monday.
Some criteria are already set. Local social distancing guidelines will need to be lifted before a school can reopen. Local health officials will need to sign off on a reopening plan. And then, a school will need to meet the State Board’s guidelines, which are yet to be determined.
Some district leaders are taking a wait-and-see approach. In Boise, Caldwell and Homedale, trustees will meet in the next few days to discuss the State Board’s latest decision — and their options for the future.
“We appreciate that the State Board closed schools through the end of our school year with the caveat that if conditions improve, we can actually discuss and make a decision about reopening,” Caldwell Superintendent Shalene French said.