In an emergency meeting held over the Zoom application on Friday morning, the Payette School District Board of Trustees discussed possible changes to its opening plan after the District canceled the first day of school slated for Aug. 24. The cancelation comes after an update posted online by Southwest District Health, reporting an increase in COVID-19 cases in the city of Payette and Payette County.
According to zip code-specific information obtained from Southwest District Health on Aug. 21, Payette has a seven-day moving average daily positive test rate of 6.93 per 10,000 people. This is the highest reported among zip codes Southwest District Health monitors.
Board Chairman Adam Rynearson acknowledged the help given to the school district by the regional health authority, while noting it leaves the ball in the district’s court.
“Without it, we’d really be in the dark; It helps know where our community is at,” said Rynearson. “As we all know, Payette County is in the ‘red’ designation … That’s the county’s designation, that’s not the school district’s designation. With that, they may give some recommendations and to this point still haven’t.”
Trustee Andy Kirkendall expressed disappointment with how only a few cases can affect the city’s positive test rate.
“With such a small community, just a couple of cases can alter that number by a significant amount. But it’s still something we have to look at; I understand the need to cancel school, and I understand that we need to act upon that now.”
Trustee Candita Strong expressed opposition to reopening schools in the ‘red’ level of the district’s leveled operation plan, citing a parent survey that showed a majority of parents want their kids at school.
“These kids need to be in school,” said Strong. “I got so many messages last night from families, friends of mine, people that maybe don’t even like me, asking me to please try to get their kids in school. These kids are devastated. I think that the only responsible thing to do at this point would be possibly to move our start date back one week.”
She said she observed the number of cases in people over age 18 “far outnumbers” those under 18.
Trustee Terrie Shurte agreed with Strong to a degree, except for asserting the safest move would be to open schools in ‘yellow.’
“I do not think ‘green’ is the answer; I also want to remind our Trustees that I’ve done a lot of research on the liability that we have if we open in ‘green,’ and I hope that each and every one of you have done the same … At what cost does opening ‘green’ come with?”
Shurte brought up the Idaho State Board of Education’s guidelines, directing health districts across the state to determine which level schools operate.
Trustee Ethan Mittlestadt said he believes that schools would likely operate under a ‘yellow’ level for most of the school year.
“I think, like I said at the last meeting, that is the most difficult phase for us to be in, it’s the most difficult for the parents, but I think we need to get those kinks worked out, streamlined. I don’t think that delaying one week is gonna make us any safer. The cases could go up even higher.”
Superintendent Robin Gilbert said despite the rise in positive cases, the majority of teachers expressed to her they felt safe returning to the classroom.
“There are some who do not; When we break that data down, teachers vs our classified staff, our classified staff feel less safe than our teaching staff did … There are some wanting to open slower, or open in ‘yellow,’ but the vast majority want to open and get kids back in.”
Gilbert said while the need to screen all students and staff is there, the screening process (which includes infrared heat detectors and no-contact thermometers) the district has is unlikely to pick up most cases.
“Having parents screen their kids at home, educating parents and families how to quarantine … we have to be able to isolate it in our homes,” said Gilbert. “We are not going to be able to not have live cases in our schools … It’s just the fact of life.”
She also expressed that requiring universal masking would be difficult, and that Chromebooks newly obtained by the district are not yet entirely ready to hand out for distance learning as of press time.
Strong suggested adapting the district’s leveled operating plan by campus, with ‘green’ level being implemented at Payette Primary and Westside Elementary, possibly even at McCain Middle, and ‘yellow’ at Payette High.
“We can’t keep it out,” said Strong about COVID-19, noting she has a student playing football at Payette High. “Our high schools are going to be the hardest ones, but we have to take a chance …”
It was recently announced the football team would miss the first game of the season, due to being in quarantine until Aug. 28 after community spread was linked to a recent football camp.
Rynearson said he would still like to see schools open under a ‘green’ level, noting that up to 90% of students turned in worse performance through distance learning.
Shurte moved to open schools in yellow, with Mittlestadt seconding. The vote to approve this motion failed 3-2, with Shurte and Mittlestadt voting in favor. The meeting ended without changes to reopening plans.
In an email to the newspaper on Aug. 21, Payette student Cody Smithies, who was ASB president in his eighth grade year at McCain Middle School, praised the District for its efforts to get students back to class.
“When they announced to delay the start of the school year, I thought it was a great choice as it allows the wonderful staff and teachers at the school district to be more prepared for the upcoming year and dealing with the new recommendations,” wrote Cody. “It also gives students an extra day to make sure that they are prepared for the upcoming year and any challenges they might face.”
Cody, who will start at Payette High this year, went on to pan distance learning as a viable option, stating he knows many students who struggled with it.
“Grades went down for a lot of the students I know. So for us to be opening up in Green is a big deal for the students as we can get better education and not have our grades suffer, especially for those who are just starting out in high school. I am one of those students, coming in as a freshman. I was told that our grades really matter in high school.”
The first day of school will now be held Aug. 25.