West Ada approves most of new pandemic operations plan

A reorganized and short-staffed West Ada school board voted to approve most of a new pandemic operations plan during a special meeting Tuesday night.

However, trustees also voted to remove sections of the 28-page plan that addressed criteria that would need to be met for middle and high school students to return to school in-person on a full-time basis.

The new plan doesn’t result in any immediate changes to school operations or schedules, but it does restate that the board already approved daily in-person operations for K-5 students and a hybrid, alternating-days schedule for grades 6-12.

Board member Rene Ozuna led the push to remove criteria from the new plan that included verifying that successful physical distancing is in place. Ozuna said the district would never satisfy that requirement.

“I will say that I don’t believe we are in a place where we are ready to (bring students back in grades 6-12),” Ozuna said. “My concern is that the way the language is written, I don’t think it actually allows us to do that.”

Ozuna struck language from the new plan outlining that the district “will not begin the process of considering daily in-person learning in grades 6-12 until the following criteria have been met.”

She sent the other board members an email proposing adding language that instead outlines the district’s “intention to move all students to full-time, in-person instruction as soon as we can operationally do so safely.”

Trustees also expressed concerns with language about “no clusters” of cases at high schools, saying they want administrators to connect the clusters criteria to a time period, perhaps 30 days.

In the end, district administrators will review the board’s request and bring back modified criteria for bringing students in grades 6-12 back.

Assistant Superintendent Bret Heller said the district is not looking to bring back secondary students every day “any time soon.”

“This is not something that is urgent as of right now,” Heller said.

The draft plan was presented last week by David Pate, the retired president and CEO of St. Luke’s Health. When presenting the plan a week ago, Pate said it was built upon the foundation of three primary responses:

  • Maintaining six feet of distance from one another.
  • Wearing a proper face mask correctly.
  • Washing and sanitizing your hands frequently.

Board member Ed Klopfenstein was concerned about removing physical distancing requirements, which he said is part of “the triad” to responding to the virus.

“In my humble view, we start to move away from the scientific and professional guidance we’ve been given,” Klopfenstein said. “If we start to do that, then I think it weighs on this board. Are we starting to move away into an area where we have no credible guidance to follow, down a path where we don’t have medical support, (where) there’s no scientific support?”

Pate didn’t present or answer questions at this week’s meeting. But when Ozuna asked him last week if he thought it would be safe to move middle and high school students back for daily in-person learning this school year, Pate said he would be “really surprised” but also “thrilled.”

“I will not be surprised if we look back from a month from now and think these were the good old days, that it’s going to get way worse,” Pate said last week.

Pate predicted the public “has no idea” what it will be in for if pressure continues to mount on hospitals.

Neither the school board nor administrators set a timeline for bringing back revised return-to-school plans for grades 6-12.

Johnson named board chair

Trustee Amy Johnson was named board chair Tuesday night, representing the third person to hold the post in the past two months.

Amy Johnson

Johnson succeeds former board member Philip Neuhoff, who resigned abruptly at the end of last week’s meeting.

Prior to Neuhoff’s brief tenure as board chair, Klopfenstein resigned as board chair Oct. 13. but elected to retain his seat on the school board.

Former trustee Steve Smylie also resigned from West Ada’s board in October, but he was not serving as board chair at the time.

“Board chair has been a lightning rod role for us this year,” Johnson said, adding that it’s time for the board to find alignment among itself and its stakeholders and offer more kindness.

West Ada’s public problems have overshadowed many great things going on in the district this year, Johnson added. “We are one of the few school districts in the Treasure Valley here that have kids in school right now and that’s a testament to the principals, the teachers and the support staff in our buildings”.

It’s been a bumpy year for West Ada navigating the coronavirus pandemic:

  • School officials delayed the start of the year and began the year remotely, only to experience connectivity and technology problems that frustrated parents, students and staff alike.
  • The district began moving elementary school students back to in-person learning first.
  • Frustrated parents launched a recall effort targeting all West Ada trustees in October.
  • When the district did not move to fully remote learning in the red risk category for spreading the virus, hundreds of West Ada teachers participated in a massive sickout that forced the district to suddenly cancel school Oct. 19-20.
  • The three school board shakeups kicked off in October as well.
  • On Tuesday, the board voted to declare an opening for Neuhoff’s old seat, serving Zone 4. The district will advertise the board vacancy and accept applications for patrons. So far, district leaders have not announced a timeline for filling the empty seat.

West Ada is the state’s largest district based on enrollment, serving more than 38,000 students K-12.

Clark Corbin

About Clark Corbin

Reporter Clark Corbin has covered Idaho government and education for more than a decade. He’s followed every legislative session, gavel-to-gavel, since 2011. Clark is a co-host of the Extra Credit podcast with Kevin Richert published on Fridays. You can follow him on Twitter: @clarkcorbin. He can be reached by email at [email protected]

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