Going back to school amidst COVID-19

Idaho State Board of Education President Debbie Critchfield addresses Gov. Brad Little’s press conference on Thursday. State officials aim to see students return to in-person learning, while safeguarding public health along the way.

PAYETTE COUNTY — At a press conference held at the Idaho State Capitol on Thursday, Aug. 6, Gov. Brad Little reaffirmed his aim to get Idaho students back inside the classroom amid the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.

Little said the side effects of longterm distance learning can potentially rob students of needed skills for entry into the workforce.

“Students must return to school for in-person instruction as much as possible,” he said. “School operations will not look the same across the state, based on virus activity and health-care capacity in specific communities. However, when students are out of the classroom for too long, the achievement gap widens.”

Little painted a bigger picture of the gap’s potential for those watching or listening to the conference.

“This gap draws down the progress of all students. This gap is detrimental to economic prosperity in future workforce demands. This gap inhibits an educated populace, which is critical to a successful democratic republic.”

Little went on to say that digital means could never replace in-person interaction, despite the State spending $48 million on technology for distance learning.

The state has spent an additional $10 million on personal protective equipment for schools, including masks, shields and hand sanitizer.

A further $3 million put toward testing lab capacity is intended to turn around results for teachers and families, leveraging major pharmacies along the way to help restore confidence in in-person instruction, according to the governor.

Little said state officials remain engaged with school leaders around Idaho, with attention given to bolstering schools’ financial stability.

“Idaho schools will be minimally impacted by revenue shortfalls,” according to Little.

While metropolitan areas are being strained by COVID-19, Little said allowing for local response has been effective at keeping daily new case rates in half of counties statewide remaining at or below 11 cases per 100,000.

“If we continue to practice [mitigation] measures, we will be able to send our kids back to school,” said Little.

Christine Hahn, state epidemiologist, said the number of cases statewide, although coming from a high number, is presently trending downward. She cited the benefits of wearing masks as having contributed to this downward trend.

Hahn said hospitalization rates statewide are showing similar downward movement; such are now being used to make further decisions during the pandemic.

“We know that that is from a high number, or not where we need to be. But as the governor eluded to, things are coming down and we are hopeful that part of that is because of the action of people.”

She also said it was nice to see a “sea of masks and smiling eyes” around Idaho.

However, Hahn said new emergency room admissions, while down from a high number, are above the state’s goal of four or fewer daily, with a total of 14 reported earlier this week.

“Although this is reassuring, we recognize that we still have quite a burden of illness … in our state.”

Debbie Critchfield, president of the Idaho State Board of Education, said the board has been expecting the kind of response made by school boards throughout the state.

“I want to communicate that as a board, we are very comfortable with and [have] expected that the plans would look [different], that’s exactly what the guidelines were designed to do,” she said. “As there is discussion from school districts … The differences that we have around the state, we are not surprised by that.”

On that note, Critchfield expressed that while she wants to see continued flexibility, she doesn’t want to see recklessness.

“We are certainly not suggesting or promoting that public safety be tossed aside for that end. But we don’t believe that it needs to be,” she said. “These are not exclusive ideals of being safe and also having some form of in-person learning.”

Idaho State Superintendent Sherri Ybarra expressed the importance of in-person experience for needier students, as officials determine when to safely reopen physical campuses.

“It has been a tense time for everyone, and education is not immune. For many reasons we want our schools to reopen and for some kids it’s because they’re losing ground fast. For other students, it’s their social-emotional well-being that’s suffering and for some kids, unfortunately, school is the only place where a nutritious meal will be served for the day. When our schools have to close, our kids suffer.”

Emmett Superintendent Craig Woods touched on how important it is for educators to listen to parents throughout their reopening efforts.

“I think we all have the same goal in mind, is to put our students back in the classroom. Our reopening plan in Emmett … is something that not only our administration, our staff members and our public (also) put together.”

When asked about the special Legislative session he called, Little said it would primarily focus on liability for educators and businesses, but would likely address elections as well. He also said no legislators are known to have contracted COVID-19 in Idaho.

At the same conference, Little announced that Idaho would remain in stage four of its reopening plan for another two weeks, with Ada County remaining in stage three.

Even when Idaho does exit stage 4, Little said guidelines would remain in place to ensure public safety and this would hold especially true as traditional flu season begins.

“We’re learning as the science evolves, we’re learning how to do this; If [everybody] does the right thing, they should be okay.”

With grandchildren in Idaho schools, Little praised the collective effort of Idahoans for enabling progress to date.

“Thank you Idahoans for wearing a mask in public, keeping physical distances from others, maintaining good hygiene in clean spaces and staying home when you’re sick.”

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