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Backpacks, Notebooks And Face Masks. Boise School District Begins 2021-22 School Year

Boise Independent School District
Monday, Aug. 16 is the first day of class in the Boise Independent School District.

As thousands of school kids, parents, teachers and staff return to Boise classrooms, they’re also facing a third school year shackled to COVID-19.

“If you had told me that 18 months ago, I'm not sure I would have believed you at that point,” said Coby Dennis, superintendent of the Boise Independent School District.

Dennis said he and his colleagues have continuing conversations with parents – some who have plenty of questions about safety protocols, and some who think that a face mask requirement is one protocol too far.

“But I don't know that my conversations with the parents who are concerned about the safety protocols are any different than those that don't like a mask requirement," he said.

On the first morning of the 2021-22 school year, Dennis visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to discuss those protocols and share his genuine enthusiasm about having students back in classrooms.

“We meet every single day to go through the data, to talk about our own data that we collect when school's in session.”
Coby Dennis

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice,  This morning, tens of thousands of students, educators and staff head back to school in the Boise School District. And things are indeed different from this time a year ago. Joining us this morning is Coby Dennis, Superintendent of the Boise Independent School District. Superintendent. Good morning.

COBY DENNIS: Good morning, George Prentice. Thanks for  giving me the opportunity to visit with you.

PRENTICE:  What pointed you in the direction to decide that in-person instruction was the way to go to begin the school year?

DENNIS: It's a  really good question, George. We've had a lot of experiences over the last 18 months.  We're entering into, unfortunately, the third school year that is going to be impacted by COVID. And if you had told me that 18 months ago, I'm not sure I would have believed you at that point. We spend a lot of time trying to learn different methodologies on how to deliver effective instruction and enhance learning for our kids. All of the different platforms that you use have some pros and cons. But one of the things that I believe deeply is… is that there is nothing more effective in a child's learning than sitting in front of their teacher, building that relationship, and how that affects the learning of the student. Those things just cannot be replicated in a hybrid model or in a totally virtual model. Different kids have different learning styles, and some  can flourish in those kinds of models. But as a whole system, there just isn't any other substitute than that third grade teacher sitting down with that child and helping them through those questions that they have, is the learning is taking place.

PRENTICE: I want to talk about safety protocols in just a moment;, but we know that there were some students and families that went off the radar during the last school year. But we also know that a number of families have moved here in the past year. So, what is your sense… as far as the number of kids will walk into classrooms this morning?

DENNIS: Well, I think that it's a question that we are anticipating as well. We have a general sense, like any year,  kids move away…kids come in from those families who contact us about their plans. So,  we have a general sense as to how many kids are going to walk in every year, whether it's a pandemic year or no. There is always an anticipation about how many will show up. And there is typically some adjustment that have to take place that first two or three weeks of school, as you balance class sizes out, and that kind of stuff. I think the pandemic has exacerbated some of those questions and concerns because, as you said, we had a bunch of different kids leave the school district last year and I have had a whole bunch move in over the course of the summer. And I'll give you a sense, George, just so you understand: we lost about 1,800 kids last year during the course of the pandemic, as best we can tell, about two thirds of those moved out of the area. And so, we have a sense to illustrate your point as to who's coming and who's going. But there's always the question; and we won't know until we see their smiling faces sitting in those seats, who's actually going to show up.

PRENTICE: I'm curious about some of the conversations you've been having with parents. Let's start with the parent who has deep concern about the spread of COVID-19. What do you say to reassure the, that the right number of safety protocols are in place?

boise school logo.jpg
Boise Independent School District
Boise Independent School District

DENNIS: Well, I'll say this: I don't know that my conversations with the parents who are concerned about the safety protocols are any different than those that don't like a mask requirement. I think they're very, very similar conversations. Number on: we have all of the protocols that are recommended by the CDC, CDH, and American Pediatrics Association. We look at all of those recommendations and do the best we can to implement every single one of those to the best of our ability. So that's first and foremost. The second piece is when we talk to parents, we want them to know we want their child in school, no matter what side of whatever the controversy is. We want their kids in school. And we spend a lot of time talking about the individual needs of each one of those families, and how we can make sure that they're comfortable with what those protocols are going to be. So, to me that conversation, no matter which issues they're bringing… when I have conversations with the parents, I try and reassure them that, yes, we have the hand sanitizer still. Yes, we try to adhere to the three to six feet social distance. Yes,  we're having masks in place this year. We reassure them of all the things that we have in place to ensure the safety of their child and every one of those protocols. And it's like a glove. You can't take one finger off of the glove and have it work. They have to work in conjunction with one another, to mitigate the risk that is associated with gathering large groups of people together.

PRENTICE: Let's talk about the data. You're watching the data as much as anyone. I've got to assume that every day you've got to be nimble, and react to whatever direction our collective health systems are moving toward… good or bad.

DENNIS:  So, let's talk about that. We get updated twice a week from our Central District Health and our St. Luke's and St. Al’s partners. As far as what are the actual… on the ground… what's the on-ground data that is going on right now. And I'll give you an example. So, over the last three weeks, the positivity rate in kids between the ages of 5 and 18 has tripled. So that data we're getting twice a week, as we move, as we moved closer and closer to the start of school today. So that's one thing. And the other thing we do is, we meet with our consultants at least twice a month to talk about what that data means and how it affects the spread of the virus.  What mitigation factor should we be considering? But ever every single day, the cabinet… the superintendent’s cabinet…, we meet every single day to go through the data, to talk about our own data that we collect when school's in session. So, we collect all of that data every day and then publish it on our website once a week, so that we're being very transparent about what how many cases we're seeing in our schools every day. So, yeah, my job has changed significantly from what I saw when I was the deputy superintendent   It has to start with the safety, first and foremost, of the students, because if we don't have a safe environment, we really can't have school

PRENTICE: Superintendent Coby Dennis. If he is not the busiest man in town this morning, he's in the top 10. Best wishes for a safe…with  capital “S”… safe and productive semester.

DENNIS: George, thank you. And to all the parents out there, we are excited about having all of your kids in school. So thank you for trusting us.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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