Idaho needs a reality check on reopening schools safely

Public education in Idaho is on a collision course, with two trains barreling toward each other. On one track is an out-of-control increase in cases of a deadly virus. On the other track is Idaho’s woeful funding of public education.

It is an unfortunate, but somewhat self-inflicted dilemma. State and local officials want to reopen schools, but they lack the resources to do it safely and effectively. COVID-19 cases in Idaho are spiking exponentially just as state officials have rolled out their recommendations for reopening schools. If Idaho is going to reopen school buildings during a pandemic, resources for districts and equitable learning opportunities for all students are imperative.

Idaho’s educators and support personnel want nothing more than to be back in classrooms with their students. We know that in-person instruction is markedly better than emergency and online education. But more and more we are realizing that those benefits do not outweigh the risk to the health, and even the very lives of educators, students, and families. It is time to recognize our professional educators as “essential workers”, prioritize their safety, provide hazard pay and the resources and support they and their students deserve.  School buildings absolutely should not reopen if the cases continue to rise and there is community spread within the community where the school district is located. Educators are essential; not expendable.

Reopening our schools safely will require modifications to the traditional way of doing things, all of which come with a price. Providing face coverings, cleaning supplies, desk dividers, and achieving smaller class sizes to ensure physical distancing should be minimum requirements.  As state and local officials contemplate reopening, some key questions remain unanswered.

  • Will they be able to achieve smaller class sizes and physical distancing with the same, or in many cases, fewer personnel?
  • Will they replace educators who decide not to risk their lives by going back into school buildings?
  • Will our classified employees receive the training and resources needed to provide the services that our students need?
  • Where will they find substitute teachers for educators who become sick?
  • Without sufficient school medical personnel, how will they evaluate and treat students and staff who exhibit signs of COVID-19?
  • How will districts support the mental and emotional health of students? Idaho’s counselor numbers were critically low before the pandemic, and COVID-19 will only make the situation worse.

Some of these questions could be successfully addressed with sufficient funding from state, local, and federal sources. The harsh reality is that Idaho’s leaders have put their local school districts, professional educators, and students in a precarious position. Here are some troubling facts:

  • Idaho ranks 51st out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia in per student funding.
  • With the 2006 tax shift, the 2018 tax cut, and other policies, Idaho has consistently misfired on opportunities to substantially invest in public education.
  • We are facing a mandated $99 million holdback for K-12 public education in 2020-2021.
  • Already heavily reliant on local levies and bonds, districts are finding it even more difficult to pass these levies, which are “supplemental” in name only. Districts need them for essential student services.
  • Rather than ramping up with the additional personnel needed for reopening in a pandemic, many local districts are cutting budgets and eliminating positions.

When school buildings across the state were closed this spring, the decision-making was based on science and data. That approach seems to have been abandoned in the rush to reopen schools this fall. Idaho is at or near the highest percentage growth in COVID-19 cases in the nation. That is a troubling backdrop for a rush to reopen schools where large numbers of people will be gathering, and health precautions will be difficult to achieve.

We do not yet know everything about COVID-19. The science surrounding it, including vaccines and treatments, is still developing. We do know that children, even those who are asymptomatic, can be carriers of the virus and infect others, including vulnerable educators, parents, and grandparents. And while children are less likely to show immediate effects of COVID-19, new research is hinting that the virus could lead to organ damage, blood clots, and other issues later in life.

Rather than making unilateral decisions, all districts should have a committee of educators, parents, and health professionals providing input on the best course of action, with the safety of students and educators as the top priority.  Since educators are the ones most impacted by the difficult decisions that will be made throughout the state on reopening schools, they should have a voice in those decisions and their voices must be respected.

It is time for a reality check on reopening school buildings in Idaho. With skyrocketing increases in COVID-19 cases, the future seems to be dictated by the virus. Parents will not send their kids into school buildings that are not safe. Educators will not be willing to risk their lives or the lives of their families. Schools will not be able to remain open.

If federal, state, and local officials are unwilling or unable to provide the resources and support to ensure that our schools can open safely, they should tap the brakes on reopening school buildings until circumstances have changed for the better.

Layne McInelly

About Layne McInelly

Layne McInelly is the president of the Idaho Education Association, Idaho's teachers union. He was a sixth grade teacher at Morley Nelson Elementary and served as the IEA's vice president for five and a half years.

Read more stories by Layne McInelly »

Republish this article on your website