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Idaho's Public School Reopening Plan: What's In It? What Isn't?

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When Governor Brad Little unveils the much-anticipated school reopening guideline from his Public School Reopening Committee on July 9, Debbie Critchfield, president of the Idaho State Board of Education, says the plan will have a primary theme: getting more Idaho kids back in school.

"This document is not a list of ways to keep you out of school," Critchfield told Boise State Public Radio News. "It was designed to help districts make decisions to return to school."

Critchfield visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about what parents can expect from the document, the American Academy of Pediatrics' recent push to reopen schools across the U.S. and the delicate nature of social distancing in classrooms, lunchrooms, aboard school buses and on athletic fields.

“The priority from the governor on down has been, 'Get kids back to school.' Let's get schools back in and let's do this the best we can with the resources that we've got.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning, I'm George Prentice. True, it's early July, but more importantly, we note that we're a little more than a month away from the reopening of Idaho schools. Keep your fingers crossed. So there's much to talk about with Debbie Critchfield, President of the Idaho State Board of Education. She joins us live via Zoom.

DEBBIE CRITCHFIELD: Good morning.

PRENTICE: I think most of us recognize that local school board districts are unique authoritative entities, but I think it would be helpful if you could explain to me as a lay person what the state board can do when it comes to a school closure or in this case a school reopening?

CRITCHFIELD: Well, I think there are three areas that our Board of Education will focus on when we talk about getting back into school and back into whatever the new normal is. One is that, and this is just across the board year-to-year, that we've helped and provide governance an oversight of all Idaho public education, K-20. And we set minimum standards and expectations for student instruction and student outcomes.

We also set guidelines for public schools to respond to the pandemic, and that's the work that we've been focused on for about the last six weeks. So in this whole scheme of things, getting kids back to school, the operational aspects, the learning outcomes that we're looking at and wants local boards and districts to focus on, we have them putting together a draft that the full Board of Education will see and that the governor will see and ultimately is designed to help support local governance.

PRENTICE: And I think that's the real news this week: what’s inside that reopening guidance document. What can you tell us?

CRITCHFIELD: Well, I can tell you what the plan is and then what it isn't, and I think that that distinction is very critical to the overall usefulness of the document. The reopening guidelines outline statewide expectations, as I mentioned before, for the fall start of school, particularly for delivering learning and services to students. It's also a document that clarifies the governance structure of K-12 education. And then finally, it provides guidance about best practices on the different operational aspects of schools that have been informed by school leaders and staff.

Now what this isn't, what this plan isn't, it's not a document that is intended to provide legal advice. And it's also not an exhaustive blueprint for every action of operation for delivering blended learning and addressing the myriad of problems and questions that school districts will face. We want to support, again, the local governance. How can we do that? By providing you some clarification, some guidance, best practices, expectations.

PRENTICE: So, when it comes to things like athletics or transportation, would that or would that not be in that document?

CRITCHFIELD: It is. Now, transportation is one, this has been the elusive question that we don't know and we have looked high and low. I don't know how to get kids to school on a bus without running, if we're socially distancing, which of course we've been advised to do, but you're not running a bus eight hours a day. This is something that we've given recommendations on how to address it some, again, best practices of how to do it. As far as athletics are concerned, we have a state High School Athletics Association and their board has met or will meet sometime this week to determine what fall sports or any sports are going to look like frankly this year. And so what we've done on this document is refer people to their website.

What we've said all along is these things are changing. Sometimes they change rapidly, sometimes it's just every few weeks. One thing we know is that we cannot predict every type of scenario and circumstance that's going to be two months off. And although it feels like school is coming tomorrow, we also know that in this bubble of the crisis that what we're putting together today is very high level meant to support. Here's some best practices, if you get a confirmed case or here's some issues that you need to think about, here are partners that you should engage as you make your decisions. Recognizing we may have to come back to some of this and make some tweaks.

PRENTICE: I have to assume that you and your colleagues, when you're having these conversations or when you're thinking about this, which is probably 24/7, in your mind's eye you are picturing a classroom, a bus, an athletic field, a gymnasium, a lunch room.

CRITCHFIELD: Absolutely. There are many solutions to some of these things, and again, some are easier than others. We know we can spread desks out. You can have a group of kids go to lunch or a group of kids go to recess, some of those things. Other tougher, more complex issues have to deal with vulnerable staff. Again, the transportation issue. And parents, who for a variety of reasons may choose to keep their child at home but still enrolled in the school district. How are districts ensuring and what is their plan for making sure that there is equity and uniformity and thoroughness in the education that they deliver?

And George, I should have really, I feel like I should have led this whole thing out by saying, as a Board of Education, this document is not a list of ways to keep you out of school. It was designed to help districts make decisions to return to school. We want students to go back to school. We want teachers to have that interaction with students we know is critical to overall success and achievement. And so this document isn't a, "Okay, well, we can only check two of the five boxes, I guess we can't be in school." It is absolutely the opposite of that.

PRENTICE: I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the American Academy of Pediatrics saying, "The academic, physical, and mental upsides associated with reopening outweigh the risks."

CRITCHFIELD: Everything that we had seen nationally and a lot of the conversations coming from the various corners had all been erring on the side of caution. And we do want to be cautious and we certainly ... Safety is always a priority year-to-year whether it's the flu or any of the other childhood issues that we deal with or safety of shooters and dangerous people in schools, all of those things. And so we always come from that cautious side, but that was, to my knowledge, very well thought out clearly from experts that know this, that are in the field that are saying, "Make good decisions."

This document is meant to support that very type of thinking and approach to school. The priority from the governor on down has been: get kids back to school. Let's get schools back in and let's do this the best we can with the resources that we've got. Here's a document to help guide you in your decision making, not to give you ways to say, "Oh, we have to shut it down." That is not at all what this is intended to do.

PRENTICE: She is Debbie Critchfield, President of the Idaho State Board of Education. Good luck, and I'm certain that anyone, once they realize what you do, says, “Best of luck.”

CRITCHFIELD: Thank you. Most people say, "I'm glad it's not me." And some days I wish it wasn't me either. But we've got a good team, there's good people. We care about students. We care about teachers. We care about the learning outcomes that we need to have. And I'm positive and optimistic that we can get together and find solutions.

PRENTICE: Stay safe, stay well.

CRITCHFIELD: Thank you.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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