State sets guidelines for schools’ reopening

Gov. Brad Little addresses a press conference about reopening schools on July 9. Gov. Little said he expects schools will reopen for in-person learning this fall.

BOISE - As schools prepare to reopen for the 2020-21 school year, the Idaho State Board of Education said that, in the wake of novel coronavirus COVID-19, the best approach is a local approach.

In a virtual meeting held on July 9, the Board reviewed a ‘framework for decision making,’ which would leave the final judgment call to local school districts, in tandem with guidance from their local health authorities. 

At a press conference which followed later in the day to announce these guidelines, Gov. Brad little he expects schools would reopen safely despite the “extraordinary challenges” of the past four months.

“We want our students back in school at the end of the summer,” said Little. “The Idaho Constitution clearly outlines our duty to establish a thorough and  uniform system of schools in Idaho… The expectation is that schools will not be closed for extended periods of time.”

Gov. Little said with Idaho’s diverse geography and population, a ‘one size fits all’ approach wouldn’t be appropriate.

“We need to address each of those individual circumstances on an individual basis

The framework establishes three color-coded categories, which are based on the level of community spread occurring in a given school district’s boundaries. However, the guidelines say that if cases are found within a school building, the school may be closed to conduct contact tracing and perform a deep cleaning of school facilities.

In all cases, districts are encouraged to take preventative measure such as identifying sources of personal protective equipment, installing hand hygiene stations at key points, educating families on care of cloth face coverings, continued physical distancing, encouraging parents to monitor their students’ health, put in reasonable and feasible infection controls, develop a contact-tracing protocol and monitor feedback from local health authorities.

The guidelines do not mandate masks in schools.

In his remarks, Gov. Little announced resources would be made available to bridge what he called a ‘digital divide’ among groups of students.

“The pandemic has exacerbated this gap, and poses a potential ongoing disruption to our state’s momentum in many different fronts, from early literacy to college and career readiness and students’ overall well-being.”

He adds that it’s “imperative” that students make it back to class to interact with teachers and peers in person as safely as possible, but schools must also be flexible in offering ‘blended learning.’

Gov. Little cautioned, however, that all bets are off for reopening schools if Idahoans did not continue collectively working to limit the spread of COVID-19.

State epidemiologist Christine Barr said that testing is exceeding 18,000 tests conducted daily, and notes the number of individuals hospitalized and in intensive care are now available daily at coronavirus.idaho.gov.

At the conference, Debbie Critchfield, President of the Idaho State Board of Education, said the guidelines are intended to help schools out, not give legal advice. She also said that the guidelines are noticeably simpler than those of other states.

“Nothing in the guidelines or in the framework is mandatory; You will not see anything that is a ‘thou shalt.’ It is intended to support, it is intended to guide as local boards sit down what is their process, who are those important voices and advisory folks that they need to engage as they make  their decisions, who do they look to and how do they solve these things.” 

Critchfield said the Board has been actively encouraging school districts to make plans ahead of the release of these guidelines.

Sherri Ybarra, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, reiterated the importance of local control in reopening schools for in-person learning.

“We know that every community is unique and there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach, because when schools open this fall communities will be in different stages of the pandemic.  That’s why local control here is so important. It is not going to look the same in Prairie as it does in Couer d’Alene, or Nampa.”

Ybarra also expressed gratitude to Gov. Little in allocating $30 million for blended learning, including expanded connectivity and device purchases.

When asked why school reopenings are not controlled by the state, Gov. Little responded by pointing out that the soft closures weren’t either, as those were imposed by the Board.

“There’s risk in everything we do in life,” he added.

When asked about the 5% decrease in state funding to schools this school year, Gov. Little pointed out that some states are looking at reductions of as much as 40%.

Gov. Little expressed his gratitude to the Board and its reopening committee as they developed the guidelines, teachers and staff for continuing to serve their students, and to families for their support throughout the pandemic. As the new school year approaches, he reminds everyone, “Wear your mask.”

Idaho remains in stage four of its reopening plan for at least another two weeks.

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