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Administrators split on reopening school this spring

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Posted at 1:03 PM, Apr 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-23 15:03:59-04

This article was originally written by Kevin Richert with Idaho Education News.

Shoshone was one of the last school districts to close in the face of the coronavirus outbreak, holding out until the State Board of Education issued a statewide shutdown on March 23.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the district is still hoping to reopen later this spring, depending on what happens in the Magic Valley farming community in the days to come. “We’ll go where the data takes us,” Superintendent Ron Waite said this week.

Local school leaders are in a holding pattern for now — and split on the idea of reopening. About 160 district and charter leaders responded this week to an Idaho Education News survey on reopening. In all, 69 administrators said their doors are closed for the year, while 89 said they haven’t decided whether to shut down until fall.

For now, all school buildings are off-limits to students, as the State Board “soft closure” remains in effect. But the board has approved a list of guidelines that could allow schools to reopen in May — if Gov. Brad Little lifts his statewide stay-at-home order, running through April 30.

Some school leaders have already decided to remain closed. That list of 69 districts and charters includes some of the state’s largest districts — such as Nampa, Bonneville and Pocatello-Chubbuck. The list also includes the Blaine County and Boise districts, which decided to stay closed even before the State Board issued its reopening guidelines.

The 89 districts and charters that haven’t ruled out a reopening include Idaho’s largest district, West Ada, and Coeur d’Alene. Many of these schools and charters are located in small, rural communities. Some — from Boundary County to Horseshoe Bend to Preston — are located in counties with no confirmed coronavirus cases.

But Preston’s situation is not quite so straightforward. A few miles to the south, neighboring Cache County, Utah, had 40 coronavirus cases, as of Wednesday. Further complicating the issue, Utah has closed its public schools for the year; for about a third of Preston’s staff, which commutes to Idaho, returning to school could present a child-care challenge.

Preston district staff will meet with local health district and hospital officials next week to discuss their options. Superintendent Marc Gee says he’d like to reopen if possible, if the schools can get in three weeks of classes before summer break begins on May 21. Local sentiment is mixed. “It’s pretty split within the community, from what I’ve heard,” he said Wednesday.

Districts and charters will have to meet a stringent set of criteria in order to reopen. The State Board wants the state or local coronavirus infection curve to peak — and flatten, for at least 14 days — before schools can reopen. Local health district officials and school trustees will also have to sign off on a reopening plan.

So while 89 administrators say they haven’t ruled out reopening, several aren’t holding out much hope either. In Twin Falls, for example, administrators doubt they could meet the State Board’s reopening criteria, given the county’s relatively high infection rates.

The infection rate is even higher in nearby Lincoln County, home to the Shoshone district. Only Blaine County, a national coronavirus hotspot, reports a higher infection rate. But the county’s infection curve is showing signs of flattening, giving Waite some hope for reopening. And he thinks the State Board has given school officials a reasonable roadmap.

“I have no qualms with what they’ve come up with,” he said. “I don’t envy the choices they’ve had to make.”