Idaho School Leaders 'Nailing Jello' In Preparing To Reopen
The American Academy of Pediatrics this week said schools should reopen as soon as possible. The group representing more than 67,000 pediatricians wrote that the effects of keeping schools closed is worse for kids than the risks of COVID-19.
In Idaho, a task force is drawing up general recommendations, but each school district is left to chart its own course.
Reopening plans in the Boise and West Ada school districts, the state’s largest, both increase hygiene practices, require physical distancing when possible, stagger release times to limit interaction in common spaces like lunchrooms, and close schools to unscheduled visitors.
The plans assume minimal-to-moderate community spread of COVID-19 during the school year. Restrictions are tighter if community spread intensifies. Closing individual schools if positive cases are discovered in the school community is a possibility.
But will it work?
Stephanie Myers is President of the Boise Education Association, Interim Vice President of the Idaho Education Association and a member of the state’s reopening task force.
She said there can be more room to distance in schools than some may realize. "Some of the suggestions would be to remove non-essential furniture," she said. "If you’ve got a couch, a beanbag chair, a reading nook - those kinds of things are suggestions to increase the floor space in a classroom.”
The task force is evaluating every aspect of the in-person education experience; from busing to extra-curricular activities. They are taking cues from larger states like Washington, Colorado and California, and specifically mentioned a plan from Georgia schools as one which could line up well in Idaho.
“We’re taking all of those into consideration and kind of matching up topically," Myers said. "If the Georgia plan is talking about vulnerable staff, what does the West Ada plan look like and how do they address it? What does the Boise plan look like?”
In some places, there is little to no safety net if teachers and staff opt out of work because they are immunocompromised or sick. Susan Buescher is superintendent of Mackay School District, one of the smallest in the state.
"When you only have one teacher per grade, and you can’t find a substitute," she said, pausing. "I mean, you can’t find substitutes or bus drivers."
Buescher said some job opportunities posted in the district have gone months without applicants. The staffing squeeze also makes it harder to establish online learning for students whose families don’t feel comfortable - or can't - send them to school.
“It’s not realistic to ask those teachers to teach the kids here at school and to teach the kids who aren’t in school,” she said.
Mackay isn't alone in its staffing challenges. Buescher said partnering with nearby districts in Challis or Butte County might be possible, but they are likely facing the same staffing challenges.
That's just one of many issues with no clear solution. Schools, meanwhile, will start welcoming back students in a little more than six weeks. Myers, of the reopening task force, said teachers will do what they do best: Be creative.
"It is daunting, because we want to be problem solvers," she said. "At this point everything is so fluid, it's nailing jello to the wall. You just have to figure it out as you go and be flexible."
The state’s task force meets Thursday afternoon and may release its guidance then. A second, "digital divide" task force is evaluating ways to ensure online learning programs don't leave students who may not have internet access behind.
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