Idaho School Official On COVID-19 Decisions: 'It's Hour-By-Hour'

Mar 16, 2020

Credit Melinda Shelton / Flickr

In the shadow of the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), much attention has focused on Idaho’s public schools.

Governor Brad Little said he will not implement statewide school cancellations over coronavirus, leaving it to local school districts to make their own decisions. During a March 16 conference call with some Idaho school officials, Little asked local school superintendents to consult with the latest information from health officials regarding COVID-19 when making their own district-wide decisions.

Meanwhile, Boise State University has shifted to online-only instruction while the Gem State’s other public higher ed institutions are expected to do the same in a matter of days.

Morning Edition host George Prentice visited with Debbie Critchfield, President of the Idaho State Board of Education, which oversees policy for K-12 public education and Idaho’s public colleges and universities.

“This is so rapidly changing, it used to be day-to-day that we were addressing things; now, we feel it’s hour-by-hour.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning, I'm George Prentice. In the shadow of the coronavirus, there is much attention paid to our schools. So this morning we're going to spend a few minutes with someone who spends every day focusing on Idaho schools. Debbie Critchfield is the president of the Idaho State Board of Education. Debbie Critchfield, good morning.

DEBBIE CRITCHFIELD: Good morning.

PRENTICE: Can you first bring us up to date on Idaho colleges and universities shifting coursework toward an online environment?

CRITCHFIELDAbsolutely. Our board met and had an update and debrief from all of our four public colleges and universities and our two-year institutions. We're also available to answer questions since last Friday. This was the first time that in that setting our board had a detailed report of exactly how our institutions plan to address closures, how to help students complete their coursework online.

There are a few, I guess, snags and not so much snags in the online part, but some of the courses don't easily translate into an online format and so we were able to go through that and hear what information, what capacity they had to make sure that students are supported, whether it's through housing or other services. This is not as simple as, yes, we're going to finish the term online. There are a lot of complexities involved and a lot of employee issues and everything in between.

The long and short of it is in some form or another our four and ultimately it sounded as though all eight public institutions in Idaho will go to an online format. Some starting as early as today. Others some time in between that, all within about a week's timeframe.

PRENTICE: Well, let's talk about K through 12. You know that a number of states including Oregon are closing public schools. What might prompt a similar decision in Idaho, either at a state level or at a district level?

CRITCHFIELDWe are the governing board for all of education and yet in this instance, this particular crisis, there are very distinct and specific guidance for these two groups. Here we've had a conversation about what the universities are doing with their closure and yet we know that the recommendations coming from our governor and other state experts has not recommended that we release for students in K-12 for a variety of reasons. The number one being a timing issue. And the interesting aspect in this is certainly our local school districts are alert looking for guidance and recommendations from status experts, but they also are locally elected boards that need to make decisions based on their own risk factors, their own ability to serve students, their own ability to impact their employees and so forth.

And so I think we know of a handful of closures that have taken place to some degree or another. I think as more schools become able to provide some of these things, we'll see more of that happening. I don't know if guidance from the governor and from his coronavirus task force will change or he tweaked a little bit. I expect that our local leaders are keeping their eye very closely on state guidance.

PRENTICE: What message might you have to students and more particularly parents of students in Idaho this morning?

CRITCHFIELDCrisis or not, whether this was a typical flu outbreak like we had several years ago with H1N1, or a snow day or some of these things, ultimately the decisions for safety with your child rest with the parent. Schools are having a lot of flexibility with attendance, with schoolwork, the ability to satisfy some of those things. If a parent is unsure, if their anxiety level is such because of health complications, perhaps people that live in their home with them or other reasons that they make those decisions and give their local school districts a call and try to work through how we continue to support students. I think from kindergarten to postgraduate, that is the number one priority for our people.

PRENTICE: You've got another board meeting as early as today, yes?

CRITCHFIELDThat is correct. We will be meeting ... The meeting was primarily set up to discuss approving a budget, a federal budget that for a career technical education, but we have on reserve should we need to make any decisions or have a discussion relative to the virus that we have an ability to do that. This is so rapidly changing. It used to be sort of day-to-day that we were addressing things and now we feel as though it's hour by hour. And we want to provide ourselves within the parameters of the law, the ability to make necessary decisions for the system as we need to do that.

PRENTICE: Debbie Critchfield is President of the Idaho State Board of Education. Debbie Critchfield, good luck and thank you.

CRITCHFIELDThank you for the time and the opportunity to communicate some of these important informational items.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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