On Aug. 26, nurse Michelle Fontaine emailed an appeal to staff at Boise’s White Pine Elementary School.
“I am planning for the return of our students to school,” she wrote. “To make sure to keep those in the building as safe as possible, I am creating a few isolation rooms for those that may have symptoms of COVID. Does anyone have a baby monitor, preferably one with a camera, that they would be willing to donate or allow the health office to use this year?”
Two weeks later, Boise schools are poised to reopen. The Central District Health department is recommending a mix of online and face-to-face instruction in Ada County. Boise schools could begin a gradual reopening as early as Sept. 21. West Ada schools are slated to reopen on Monday.
The reopenings have the blessing of local health officials.
But are the districts ready?
The state’s two largest districts are likely to face the same challenges that have confronted other Idaho schools — just on a larger scale.
What about PPE — and classroom logistics?
The baby monitor search notwithstanding, Boise says it’s ready to go. At a school board meeting last week, deputy superintendent Lisa Roberts referred to an Idaho Education News inquiry about PPE, assuring trustees that the district has plenty of supplies on hand.
In an email, spokesman Dan Hollar said the district will have PPE to supply to teachers and employees.
“There are no shortages,” he said. “We have ordered sufficient supplies of PPE (masks, face shields, hand sanitizer, disinfectant) to begin in-person learning and will continue to reorder and resupply our PPE stock, as needed. Additionally, we have surplus supplies at our warehouse that school principals can order and use to restock their supplies.”
West Ada also is well stocked, spokeswoman Char Jackson said Wednesday. A partial inventory: 14,000 face shields, 500 disposable masks, 53,000 reusable cloth masks, 400 gallons of hand sanitizer and another 5,500 bottles on order.
How much hand sanitizer can a district of 40,000 students burn through? We’ll soon learn.
Statewide, PPE supplies appear to be holding up, the Idaho School Boards Association and the Idaho Association of School Administrators said this week. In schools that are open for face-to-face learning, the bigger problem is logistics — keeping kids 6 feet apart. And that could be a big challenge for the chronically crowded West Ada district.
Another issue, in other schools, comes down to who sanitizes the classrooms. In many cases, the job has fallen to teachers, cutting into the prep time and the collaboration time that is even more important in schools that are mixing face-to-face and in-person learning.
Said Idaho Education Association President Layne McInelly of the classroom cleanup work: “I do know that’s been an added stress to educators, but it is getting done.”
What about masks?
The CDH made this decision for West Ada and Boise.
While the health district cannot tell a school district whether it should open its doors, a district can mandate mask usage. And on July 28, CDH extended its countywide mask order to K-12 schools and college campuses in Ada County.
So, when students return to West Ada and Boise schools, masks will be required.
Both districts say students could be disciplined if they don’t mask up. But Hollar said Boise will work on relationship-building, not just enforcement.
But as masks have become a polarizing issue — a flashpoint in a year of COVID controversy — schools have not been outside the fray.
The ISBA does not advise trustees about whether they should mandate masks. And some districts have tried to take a more persuasive approach, saying masks are one step that can help schools stay open and keep sports teams on the field. Perhaps that messaging will resonate with students; in West Ada and Boise, only time will tell. But at recent West Ada board meetings, trustees have found themselves in the thick of the mask debate.
“Mask culture is real,” said Quinn Perry, the ISBA’s policy and government affairs director.
What happens when (not if) students test positive?
One thing appears inevitable. When a school opens, students will test positive. Look no further than Bonneville or Kuna, two districts that are staying the course with in-person learning, despite cases in school. Or for a worst-case scenario, look at Mackay, a rural district that abruptly shifted to online instruction a week after opening for the fall.
As illustrated by Fontaine’s plan to isolate students at White Pine, Boise is gearing up for the inevitable. The district won’t try to treat any of its 25,000 students who might have coronavirus. Instead, nurses will try to assess the symptoms and decide whether to send the child home.
When a student tests positive, the hard work of contact tracing begins. Health districts can provide guidance, and help schools understand what they’re doing, said Andy Grover, the IASA’s executive director. But the actual contact tracing — trying to figure out who a student talked to, for a period of days — invariably falls to the school staff.
“It is very time-consuming,” Grover said.
On the one hand, the state’s two largest districts might have staffing to handle the job. On the other hand, more students could add up to more positive cases, more contact tracing and more students to interview.
West Ada and Boise schools have been closed for six months. Reopening is a huge undertaking. But, said Grover, “The hard part is staying open.”
And there’s still eight months left in an already tumultuous 2020-21 school year.
More reading: By October, the state’s 10 largest school districts could be open.
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Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for it every Thursday.