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Glenns Ferry School District speaks out about COVID-19 concerns

Posted at 4:20 PM, Oct 22, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-23 18:17:06-04

GLENNS FERRY, Idaho — UPDATE (October 23, 2020):

Idaho News 6 spoke with students and teachers in the Glenns Ferry School District who said they're worried about a lack of COVID-19 precautions in the schools (see original story below). Friday, we caught up with the district superintendent.

District Superintendent, Cody Fisher, says the district has followed protocols surrounding COVID-19, especially as cases in Glenns Ferry Rise.

"As far as students go, right now we have 11 current positive cases in our district. We have 5 likely positive. We have 94 kids that need to be quarantined due to being considered a first-hand exposure to a positive covid case, and we have 6 students that have recovered," Fisher said.

The district says there are 400 students in the Glenns Ferry School District. Fisher was unable to meet with Idaho News 6 Thursday due to meetings surrounding staff and student concerns.

"Unfortunately having to miss our scheduled interview yesterday--staff and students have to come first and that was the case here," Fisher explained.

At the special school board meeting Thursday night, the board voted to require masks for both students and staff. Idaho News 6 originally reported the school's reopening plan had changed twice, but Fisher clarified the plan had not been amended before Thursday night.

"The reopening plan was amended for the first time since its adoption by the school board last night," Fisher clarified. "With that first amendment of our reopening plan, the board approved to adopt a mask mandate for all students and staff across the district.

The mask mandate does have a medical exemption.

As Idaho News 6 reported Thursday night, students and teachers we spoke with were afraid to go on camera for fear of retaliation. Fisher says he has an open-door policy, and hopes those people now feel comfortable coming forward.

"If my staff needs to come in and close the door and need to have emotional conversations and need to tell me how they're feeling because they are scared, they are nervous, they are anxious, they absolutely can do that," Fisher said.

Fisher says some of the anonymous student and staff statements (see original story below) provided to Idaho News 6 said the school board contemplated a "don't ask, don't tell" policy--something Fisher says is completely false.

"Did that statement, did those words come out of a board member's mouth? Yes, they did--in a question to a parent. They asked, 'Is that what you're saying you want in our district?' Did the board discuss having us adopt that as a district? Absolutely not," Fisher said.

Fisher also said the district followed Central District Health Guidelines when it came to allowing the homecoming football game.

"First-hand exposures that we had knowledge of were quarantined, anyone else that would be considered second-hand exposure, we followed Central District Health guidelines on those people," Fisher said.

At Thursday night's meeting, there was also discussion surrounding changing the quarantine protocols for those first-hand exposures to COVID-19, but an official decision has not yet been made.

Some students have requested to be anonymous, but have shared statements with Idaho News 6 in support of the school:

"I am a student and a varsity volleyball player for Glenns Ferry, when my friends and I saw how a few people could blame our school and accuse others of the outbreak we thought you should hear another side. I think our school sometimes does too much. We have to walk down certain sides of the hall, our desks are spread way apart, hand sanitizer is everywhere, fever checks every day are taken, lunchroom tables are marked where to sit, and in my weight lifting class, we have to clean before and after using machines and even where we sit! My volleyball coach assigned girls each day to clean equipment and each ball after practice, temperatures we take either at practice or at school, masks were provided for attending other schools, restaurants, and different places. Our school is super clean and our teachers are consistently reminding us to keep social distancing rules, wash our hands, and a mask if needed. As for playing volleyball, it was so sad how an honest and ethical decision was made by one of my teammates then twisted to make them and the school look bad. Our community is hurt and just like our nation at a loss of what to do with the virus. Our school administrators, school board, coaches, and teachers have worked so hard to listen and better the situation, I believe the twisted material put in the last article not only hurt my team and school but has now hurt our community."

Original Story (October 22, 2020):

COVID-19 cases have been on the rise across the state, with cities like Twin Falls and Boise getting a lot of attention, but in Idaho's small towns like Glenns Ferry, they're finding the global pandemic is hitting home hard.

"It's a pretty large impact, and as you are aware, you've had a school closure in that jurisdiction that was impacted directly by the number of cases that they were seeing," said Brandon Atkins, a public information specialist with Central District Health.

Central District Health says based on reports, Glenns Ferry has seen an increase in cases. Since October 11, the district has received reports of 15 Glenns Ferry residents meeting the confirmed or probable COVID-19 case definition.

"This is a large number of cases in a short period of time for a community of their size and a trend that is definitely concerning," a district representative told Idaho News 6.

The Glenns Ferry School District is holding a special board meeting Thursday to discuss a reopening plan for the local school district. That plan has already changed twice this year.

Superintendent of the district, Cody Fisher, agreed to an interview with Idaho News 6 ahead of the special meeting. We tried multiple times to reach the district, including emails and phone calls. We also waited in our scheduled Zoom meeting room for nearly an hour--but Fisher never showed.

Students and teachers we spoke with were unwilling to go on camera because of fear of retaliation, but say the district has not been following the recommended COVID-19 prevention protocols--including wearing masks.

"Those rural communities need to push back," Atkins said. "If their schools are not implementing those best practices, they need to ask them why. Ask them, "Why are you allowing us to operate, and you're not creating guidance based on what's been issued? If you can look at the health jurisdiction and you know what that guidance is, why are you not using that to protect us?'"

The students also say sports were allowed to continue, even as teammates tested positive for the coronavirus.

Idaho News 6 will follow up with the district to hear their side when they finally become available.

Multiple teachers and students have reached out to Idaho News 6, but for fear of retaliation have asked their names to be kept anonymous. Their written statements are as follows:

"Not a single person alive is going to deny that trying to teach in the time of COVID-19 is difficult. It’s not the same as being in person and getting to talk with my students. As much as we might try to foster conversation, it’s difficult to talk at a screen and feel like you’re having a real discussion with real people. But if that’s what we have to do to keep our students, our kids, safe, then so be it. Between the consideration of implementing a don’t ask, don’t tell policy and continuing to have our Homecoming football game even after a player tested positive and informed the school, Glenns Ferry School District is not trying to keep their students safe.

When we first opened our doors this semester I had my concerns, everyone did. But we wanted to be back with our students. There was no mask mandate, students were not required to wear masks in the building, neither were staff. Some chose to, but they were incredibly in the minority. Sure we were given hand-sanitizer and told to disinfect our desks, but the first day I still had students telling me the virus wasn’t real and even if it was it wasn’t that serious. Towards the end of October we have several staff recuperating (and being badgered by parents and staff for their inability to work while sick with a virus that has killed upwards of 200,000 people) from COVID, and one staff who had to go into the hospital for supplemental oxygen. COVID-19 looks pretty real from where I’m sitting.

After our first outbreak staff were required to wear masks, a step in the right direction, sure, but still no mask requirement for students. This is redoubled with the fact that spectators aren’t required to wear masks at sporting events. If a parent comes to the school in the middle of the day to drop something off for their child they are required to get their temperature taken and wear a mask. Should that same parent come back several hours later to watch their child play volleyball no such requirement is in place. Many of schools of our size have made this a requirement to watch, why haven’t we?

All of this has come to a head as we, once again, have students and staff test positive. Except this time, a wave of parents are calling for the school board and administration to lessen the severity of our precautions, minimal as they are. At this point in time, anyone who tests positive and then first contacts with those people are required to quarantine for 14 days. This has had the effect that we have coaches telling players to not get tested so they’re able to play, a student who ran a fever before school put an ice pack to her head to pass the temperature scan at the door, and it is even being entertained at the school board level to implement a don’t ask, don’t tell policy in regards to getting tested.

When I was in high school, one of my friends died tragically in an accident. Several days later I attended his funeral in our school gymnasium. It was packed to the brim with friends and family. I am aware that for most people COVID is not fatal. I am aware that for most school-aged children it is not fatal. But trying to force the school into doing next to nothing in regards to prevention? Yes, COVID-19 is not fatal for everyone. But that still means it can be fatal for some. And I’ve been to enough funerals held in a high school auditorium, I don’t need to go to another because of selfishness."
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"To whom it may concern:

As an educator in the Glenns Ferry School District I am very concerned with the direction that our school has chosen to continue to follow. A few weeks ago our school went into a shutdown after several staff members and students tested positive for Covid. As far as the actual count is concerned, I know that there was at least nine staff who tested positive and 3-4 ish students that tested positive. Several students and staff were quarantined as first-hand contacts also. After that outbreak, our school decided to resume as normal. This includes a full day non-mask environment with cleaning and social distancing in place.

Many students and families did not take this seriously and continued to allow their children to go about the town as usual even though they were contacted by the CDH to quarantine. Within two weeks we faced another closure. Several members of our volleyball team and football team tested positive for Covid. Initially, some of the football players were only first-hand contacts. Even though several members were quarantined and had attended practice the previous days ahead our team was allowed to continue with games and practices.

Within a day, several more players from both the volleyball and football teams either tested positive or developed symptoms. Some chose not to test. We also have at least two staff currently diagnosed and one in the hospital right now. Public input was sought on whether to even close down this week. It was decided to close this week with the intention of a special board meeting tonight.

Several members of the community are proposing a non-mask (which is already in place) non-quarantine agenda for our school. This would include no quarantine for first-hand exposures. This means that if you have a family member who is positive or have been in close contact with someone who is positive and you have no symptoms then you can resume attending school. The board is considering this option even after two major outbreaks. At this time I know that there are around 50+ students in high school quarantined by the school and CDH. We have several paras and educators out. They will vote tonight to decide one of the following:

  1. No first-hand contacts are quarantined at all.
  2. First-hand contacts quarantine for 7 days and then wear mask for 7 days, even if they were told by CDH that they needed to stay home for 14 days (this would bring back a majority of our staff and students).
  3. Mandatory 14 day period for all positive and first-hand cases which is currently in place

The board sent out surveys to parents and staff asking them what they prefer. At this point even after two major outbreaks, weeks apart, the possible intention is to have school as normal and bring all the quarantined students and staff back that have been in quarantine by CDH as first-hand contacts. As an educator, I feel that this is a dangerous and risky move. The fact that we currently have one staff member hospitalized and our school is wanting to resume speaks volumes in showing that our school is willing to partake in reckless behavior that has once again endangered the lives of our staff as well as community members. We have had a huge outbreak in our community as well.

I do not worry as much for myself as I do my loved ones and several other staff here with health issues. The fact that our school is unwilling to release total quarantine numbers from the first or second outbreak to the community or CDH/news speaks volumes. KTVB has already done a story on how Glenns Ferry has not given its numbers to be placed on the CDH website for the community. I feel that the board is getting pressure from a few prominent families in our area and the effects of their decision tonight could be devastating.

We currently have a 42-page reopening plan on our website that a committee of several people compiled with special attention to research. This plan is about to be completely thrown out the window tonight if either two of the three choices above is implemented. Every day, I worry about the safety of my students and their families if we allow the school to resume as normal, or if we allow 1st hand contacts to be let into the school without CDH recommendation. We have had children fake temp checks with ice packs and have had students with positive family members attend community functions as normal without masks. We cannot expect our community to be honest about these things. I am hoping that the board makes the right decision for the time being but even after today I do not believe that this item will be off the agenda."
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"Covid-19 a virus that has put our planet in a global crisis. This virus has caused over 200,000 deaths in the US. Long story short, this virus is not safe. Sure if I were affected by it I would be fine, but that’s the thing, it’s not about me, it’s about who can get it worse BECAUSE of me. With that in mind, what rules do we have in place to protect us from this virus? Social distance, clean everything, wash your hands, and wear a mask. These are good rules, yet our school board fails to enforce these rules. They tell us social distance, yet we have classes where we’re next to each other for eight hours of the day, and not to mention the fact that we still have sports that they promote. Our school staff does a good job requiring us to clean our desk as they tell us at the beginning of every class. But then they don’t require masks, which then contradicts every rule they have in place for us. And it’s hard to take the rules seriously when they don’t require students to wear masks. At the end of every class hour when the bell rings, there is a perfect example of the way covid can spread around our school, everyone is close to each other, no masks or anything.

A football student-athlete tested positive for covid on Thursday, October 15. That day another case was confirmed with a student who was on the volleyball team and was present at school all week. Another student had a fever and a sore throat, but then used an ice pack in order to pass the temperature check, and was in school all week without a mask. What did our school board do? They still had the homecoming game on Friday, endangering the opponent’s players and other students. We informed our principal about the cases in the morning of that same Thursday, and we didn’t know what we were going to do until the end of the day, and he didn’t send the girl who faked the temperature check home. I don’t know what’s up with our school board, but something needs to be done so that way we feel safe to even go to school. It’s my last year, and I want to enjoy it, but I need to feel safe in order to do that."
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"I am a student at Glenns Ferry high school. Lately we've had more cases of Covid than expected. The school takes minor precautions and more could be done. They take our temperatures in the morning and give us hand sanitizer. Another thing is that they don’t require us to wear masks as the state requires. Last week a junior student in volleyball had been feeling symptoms of covid and still attended the volleyball game and exposed her entire team to it and staff members. I believe the school can do much better to keep us in a safe environment. Another thing is that people should have more precautions and the school should realize that games can be canceled because you can put many other students to risk. I feel like the school should reinforce some covid guidelines that work for the system and for the students."
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"Going through the halls it almost feels like nobody cares. We had this system that we could only go to the lockers at certain times and that walking down the halls we had to social distance and walk in a direct path. Only a couple days later is when those rules failed and students gathered around each other and the halls were crammed with students not wearing masks. I remember being told that some football players were quarantined. We still went along with the game that day after the players began quarantine. We later found out that two current players, one that played in the game on Friday, had covid therefore putting Murtaugh at risk."
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"At the beginning of the year, everything seemed fine and I thought that our school was really going to keep us as safe as possible from COVID. As the year progressed, people started to contract the disease and our school shut down for two weeks. Everything was still going well and we came back to school. I thought that because of the outbreak we would start to wear masks and social distance better, but nothing happened. When the second wave hit, everyone was sad and frustrated. People tested positive in our school and we still played a football game, therefore, putting the other team and school at risk. I just believe that we need to wear masks, sanitize, and social distance better in our school."