Idaho's Largest School Districts Take Different Paths To Fall Semester

Aug 5, 2020

School Boards of Trustees for Boise and West Ada districts met Tuesday, deciding when and how to reopen schools to students this fall.

Three risk categories and schools' response to each as determined by the CDC, adopted by Central District Health and the West Ada School District.
Credit West Ada School District Document

In Boise, trustees voted unanimously to start school remotely August 17, with the chance to shift students who have chosen in-person learning back into schools as soon as September 8.

Nearly 900 public comments received by the Boise School District were split almost evenly between those wanting to reopen and others advocating for online learning.

Tuesday, Governor Brad Little said he sent a video message to every school board member across the state, urging them to do everything possible to get kids back in the classroom this fall. That message did not appear to come up in discussion during either the Boise or West Ada Districts meetings.

Boise Trustees acknowledged the ramifications of their decision on single-parent families and others negatively impacted by the decision to keep children at home to start the year. Many characterized it as a no-win decision, but tied the decision back to recommendations from Central District Health, which says schools should not be open for in-person learning if the area is in the riskiest of three categories.

Central District Health Director Russell Duke told the board there are multiple factors determining the risk category and no clear borders between categories.

“We’re confident in where we’re designating Ada County schools and Boise School District as far as being category 3,” Duke said.

Boise administrators told trustees the district needs two weeks to pivot operations from virtual classrooms to in-person learning once reopening is deemed safe. Going forward, trustees will reevaluate the situation starting August 25.

The district created two tracks students can choose from by August 7: fully online or in-person, the latter includes virtual classrooms when in-person education is not available.

“If any parent is uncomfortable staring their kids in person, they should enroll in the online program,” said Boise Superintendent Coby Dennis.

More than 4,000 of the district’s more than 26,000 students have already enrolled in the online program, which will include district curriculum taught by dedicated online teachers.

District officials said they would allocate staffing based on how many students signed up for each program and more information would be provided to students and families in the coming week.

West Ada District Trustees voted to delay the start of school until September 8, buying time and ramping up teacher and student training for the potential of remote learning if community transmission of COVID-19 remains high at the next board meeting August 25.

Trustees approved a plan for in-person learning on an alternating calendar; students would attend school either Tuesday and Thursday or Wednesday and Friday, and alternate Mondays every other week. The alternating calendar allows for smaller class sizes and better physical distancing.

Previously, that plan would have only been available if CDH deemed the area category 2, but after hearing testimony that a year-long designation of category 2 or category 3 risk was likely, trustees voted to allow themselves freedom to break away from the CDH guidelines and potentially reopen schools even if the area remains in category 3. They did not discuss or determine the rationale or evaluation process for a decision outside the health district guidelines.

If schools are reopened, staff said it would take about a week to get services like buses and lunchrooms up and running.

District officials said they had spent $7 million on laptops and other devices to provide to students for online learning, but two-thirds of the new devices purchased were unlikely to arrive by the scheduled start of school in late August.

The five-hour meeting included a lengthy discussion on requiring masks, and what to do if Central District Health lifted its mask mandate. Trustees were concerned about needing to provide masks at that point in order to enforce a mask requirement in the school.

“We’ll handle that [compliance] the same way we handle other issues,” said Assistant Superintendent Bret Heller.

Several dozen written public comments were submitted to West Ada Trustees; several included references to debunked science equating COVID-19 to the seasonal flu or tuberculosis.

Follow Troy Oppie on Twitter @GoodBadOppie for more local news.

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