West Ada will allow full in-person classes for youngest students first — but not yet

West Ada School District trustees Tuesday night voted to restructure their reopening plan to allow kindergarten and pre-K students to attend classes full time, once the local health authority decides students can return to school buildings in person.

Right now, health and school board officials say it’s not safe to go back to school in person.

Central District Health considers West Ada in the “red,” or most severe category for risk of COVID-19 spread. Last week West Ada trustees voted to start the school year with online learning for the week of Sept. 8-11.

If the health district eases the ranking to a “yellow” or less-severe risk category by mid-September, students could be allowed to return to buildings part-time in an in-person and online hybrid model.

Tuesday’s vote tweaked what reopening in “yellow” would mean for the district’s youngest students. Per the change, preschool and kindergarten students would be allowed to return to school with all of their classmates, every day of the week, while other students would return only some days of the week. Trustees also voted to give Superintendent Mary Ann Ranells permission to gradually add elementary grade levels to the full-time schedule as she sees fit.

“Thank you for moving us forward. Gradual is fine. We’ve gotta get started and we’ve got to start somewhere,” trustee Amy Johnson said. She recommended the district continue to check in with staff and parents to frequently collect their feedback.

Bret Heller, West Ada’s assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, told the board that Central District Health approved of the idea that kindergartners and preschoolers could attend school daily in “yellow” conditions, in part because current COVID science indicates that young children are somewhat safer from the disease than older students and adults. According to the district, about 70 percent of kindergarten teachers said they would be comfortable adopting this change if Central District Health approved it.

Kindergarten and pre-K classrooms would act as self-contained “pods,” Heller said, separating from one another so that if one student gets sick they don’t potentially spread an infection outside of their group. Preschool classes would be around five to eight students, Heller said. The average kindergarten class is about 15 students and the largest is 26 students.

“Education, regardless of the delivery model, is not a paint by number and it’s going to look different class to class,” Heller said.

West Ada’s decision is similar to a move by the Boise School District last week to allow kindergarten through second-grade students back to school first, once the district decides to allow in-person learning in some format, the Idaho Statesman reported.

The Tuesday board meeting came on the heels of a Monday protest of parents and students unhappy that West Ada will adopt remote-learning for the first week of school, the Statesman reported.

The board meeting got somewhat contentious, too. Only a small group of onlookers was allowed to attend the meeting in person due to COVID-19 restrictions. They began to clap when presenters and trustees discussed bringing students back to school in person, raising objections from chairman Ed Klopfenstein.

“I’m sorry, this is not a place to clap,” Klopfenstein told them. “And I would say, anyone without a mask: Would you please wear a mask?”

After continued clapping, Klopfenstein got into a brief verbal exchange with a woman who was still not wearing a mask. He reminded her that a sign on the door asked everyone to wear a mask, and the woman replied that he couldn’t require her to do so.

“The purpose of our meeting today, and I just want to be very clear, is we’re all trying to get the best for our kids. We want them back in school,” Klopfenstein told her.

Ranells drew the meeting back on track, asking trustees not to engage in the discussion.

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