The school year has started for many Idaho children, and the reopening plans have varied widely from district to district, even within counties with high levels of COVID-19 community spread.
Idaho’s public health districts have provided school districts guidance based on the community spread in their area, but ultimately, school boards have the final say on how kids and teachers will meet for learning: online, in the classroom, or a mix of the two.
“But they are to, according to the State Board of Education Reopening Framework, to follow and correspond to the category of community spread and transmission happening in their community," said Quinn Perry, the policy and governmental affairs director at the Idaho School Boards Association. School districts should open corresponding to the alert level the public health district places them in, she said.
But, that’s not happening everywhere. Health districts in Idaho have labeled four counties -- Ada, Canyon, Washington and Payette -- all in the southwestern part of the state, in the red health alert level, meaning they have substantial community spread. The metrics for being in the red category vary depending on the health district.
Among 16 school districts in the red counties, four began, or are planning to begin, the school year with remote learning. Six started with a hybrid model with only some kids in school each day and six more opened in green with all kids in school.
This map shows how the school districs in their local health district's red health alert level began, or are planning to begin the school year. A red dot means online learning, yellow is for hybrid models, and green equates to in-person schooling with all students in school each day. Click on a school district to learn more about its reopening plan.
Idaho’s public health districts created color-coded systems that outline different recommendations based on a county's daily case rate and other factors like the test positivity rate and the local health system capacity. Each health district matrix is based on slightly different metrics, which makes it difficult to compare color levels from district to district.
One commonality, though, is that the red health alert level points school districts to Category 3 of the State Board of Education's Reopening Framework, which suggests districts should consider short-term or long-term building closures. It does not specify how schools should start the year, but Central District Health advises that for school districts in the red category, remote or distance learning should be the “primary method deployed,” Brandon Atkins, the communications specialist for Central District Health, wrote in an email.
Though 12 of the 16 school districts in the red category began the school year with at least some students in classrooms most days of the week, those districts only serve about 25% of the students. The largest districts — like Boise, which has 25,500 students — went with online instruction, whereas the ones that opened fully in-person serve fewer than 2,000 students.
“It makes me worried and concerned because our classes are pretty full," said Lori Steiniker, an 8th grade teacher in the Payette Joint School District, which opened in green with all kids in school, except ones that opted for online learning for the year. “And the kids are being kids, you know, they want to socialize, and you can't stop them from being kids.”
Payette is one of three counties in Southwest District Health's red alert level. Last week it had the highest seven-day average of coronavirus cases per capita in the state. Still, the trustees at Payette Joint School District pushed forward to open in green, after it was reported that the high school football team was quarantining due to positive cases.
“If we continue to knee-jerk on every time we get a new case or our numbers go one way or the other, we’re going to be disappointing a lot of parents, a lot of kiddos and a lot of teachers,” said board member Candita Strong during a special meeting before school started.
Board members for many school districts have said more variables have factored into their decision making other than the health districts' color-coded systems, including supporting working parents, addressing students' mental health and not repeatedly bouncing from in-person to online models in response to fluctuating levels of community spread.
Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen
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