(UPDATED: Aug. 13, 10:26 a.m. with details on how federal money will be made available for testing.)
Gov. Brad Little renewed his appeal to Idahoans to get vaccinated today — if not for themselves, for Idaho’s kids.
Little delivered remarks on Thursday afternoon from the gym at Nampa High School to drive home his point: Kids need to be in school, and the best way to ensure they can learn in-person during the 2021-22 school year is to get vaccinated. He also pledged to give schools an additional $30 million from state coronavirus relief funds for COVID-19 testing.
“We can give our students the best chance at a normal school year if Idahoans choose to receive the vaccine,” he said.
That money will be available to all private and public K-12 schools in the state, and will give schools and school districts wide latitude to implement their own screening programs, Idaho Department of Health and Welfare spokesperson Niki Forbing-Orr told EdNews by email. That means districts can choose to target specific groups like athletes or teachers with testing, or they can screen where and when coronavirus spread is high “to support safe, in-person instruction” and provide “another important layer of prevention to protect students, teachers, and staff, and to slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2,” Forbing-Orr said.
Idaho schools will open in the coming weeks and months amid a surge of COVID-19 cases driven by the highly contagious Delta variant. On Tuesday, the state reported 754 new coronavirus cases, the largest one-day total since January of this year. More than 98 percent of all cases, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 since January have occurred among the unvaccinated, the Governor’s office said.
Little said he will allow local school boards and administrators to decide whether students should be masked in school. Throughout the pandemic he’s resisted calls for statewide mask mandates, and avoided prohibiting school board action. Republican governors in Florida and Texas have banned mask mandates in schools, setting up fierce battles with local districts at the outset of the school year.
Earlier this year, the Idaho legislature refused to allow Idaho school districts to tap into $40 million in federal funds to help pay for voluntary COVID-19 testing of students and staff. The proposal failed in the House after enjoying bipartisan support in the Senate. Little on Thursday pledged to pay for $30 million worth of tests out of state COVID-19 funds, but his promise didn’t include many details, like how schools can access the money, or whether it is earmarked for any particular uses.
About half of Idaho adults had received both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine by Wednesday evening, according to Health and Welfare data. Little said many simply won’t receive the vaccine — but many others are on the fence. It was to them he directed his appeal.
“Our younger population, children under the age of 12, cannot receive the vaccine and they need us, the adults, to make the right decision now so they can stay well and have a productive and successful school year,” he said.
Little’s Thursday press conference was intended for news reporters only. After the live conference, a handful of parents, children and self-described “allies” came into the Nampa High School gym, shouting their concerns about vaccines. One woman, who said she was a parent of children in a charter school but refused to give reporters her name, said she fears that her children will be forcefully vaccinated if she sends them to school this year.
COVID-19 vaccines are optional for all children in Idaho and are not yet approved for children under the age of 12. School districts do not directly immunize students, and certainly not without parental consent.