Idaho Gov. Brad Little and state education leaders made one thing clear Thursday: They expect students to return to in-person classes this fall.
Little and the State Board of Education unveiled what they called a “framework” for public schools to reopen amid a coronavirus pandemic that has spiked to new highs in recent weeks. But they stopped short of telling schools how they will reopen or requiring any steps.
Those key details fall to local school districts and charters to implement. The state framework provides guidance, best practices and recommendations. But local schools will choose how much — or how little — of the state’s guidance they follow.
“I expect all our school buildings to safely reopen in the fall for in-person instruction,” Little wrote in a letter previewing the plan. “Despite incredible advances in digital learning, you can never replace the value and impact of the warm hand of a professional, dedicated teacher.”
COVID-19 SPREAD DETERMINES ADVICE TO REOPEN SCHOOLS
The state provides guidance in three categories. Each category is based on the coronavirus’ level of community spread in an area, as determined by local health districts. And each step up the scale comes with more strict recommendations.
Category 1 (green) includes no or limited community transmission. Schools in that category should open buildings for face-to-face classes with physical distancing and sanitation procedures, the state plan recommends.
Category 2 (yellow) includes minimal to moderate community transmission. Schools in that category should consider a host of options, including limited or staggered use of school buildings.
And Category 3 (red) includes large-scale community transmission. Those schools should consider short- or long-term closures.
Ada County remains in Category 2. Central District Health is telling its schools to start and prepare to stay in Category 2, Central District Health school liaison Gina Pannell told the Idaho Statesman in an email.
“For simplicity, if you have a few cases without community spread, that’s Category 1,” she wrote. “If you have more than a few cases and community spread, you are in Category 2. Category 3 would be widespread closures like we were in during the stay-home order.”
Central District Health’s region includes Ada, Elmore, Boise and Valley counties.
WHAT DOES CATEGORY 2 MEAN?
Idaho has detected community spread in 35 of its 44 counties, so Category 2 remains the focus for most of its schools.
It’s also the broadest category. The state recommendations for Category 2 include keeping schools open for traditional face-to-face classes, moving fully to online learning or a mix of the two, like alternating schedules. For example, a school could send half of its students to school one day and the other half the next to create space for social distancing. Or it could send elementary students to school while allowing older students to take online classes.
Other highlights of Category 2’s guidance include:
- Daily health screenings for students and employees, including temperature checks.
- Encourage sick students, teachers and staff to stay home.
- Recommend face coverings for students, staff and visitors “when practical.” Provide a face covering for those who don’t have one.
- Consider face shields for younger students who struggle with masks.
- Require face coverings for bus drivers and encourage them for students.
- Consider staggered meal times and alternatives like serving meals in classrooms.
- Eliminate field trips.
- Communicate with families in their preferred language.
- Remote working policies for vulnerable staff.
PREPARE FOR ONLINE CLASSES
The State Board of Education warned local schools online classes won’t disappear anytime soon and to prepare for a future with them.
Idaho ordered all of its schools closed March 23, and the school year ended online for all but a couple of schools. The monumental change in education caught many districts off guard as they struggled to ensure equal access for students to online classes, leading to optional assignments and a disappointing semester for parents.
The Boise and West Ada school districts have pledged to purchase a laptop or iPad for every student in their districts. That will leave them prepared to offer more challenging and mandatory classes if they need to close schools again.
The State Board isn’t requiring other schools to follow their lead, but it cautioned schools to prepare for more closures until a vaccine or treatments become widely available.
“… It is anticipated schools will need to use a blended learning approach to education as schools move up or down through the categories of community transmission or confirmed cases are identified within a school building,” staff for the State Board wrote in an introduction to the plan.
POSITIVE CORONAVIRUS TESTS IN SCHOOLS
The state’s guidance urges schools to be ready for a student, teacher or staff member to test positive for COVID-19. Details of the case should determine the response, and the state recommends coordinating with local health districts.
The state’s guidance says schools should identify anyone in close contact with a confirmed or suspected case. It defines close contact as within 6 feet for more than 15 minutes.
Next steps could include sending all positive, suspected and close contacts home into isolation, as well as closing the school for one to two days or an extended period, if needed.
Schools should communicate closures and potential exposures with parents, students and staff, the state guidance says.
HEALTH DEPARTMENTS OFFER MORE ADVICE
The state health department and local health districts provided additional guidance for schools. They go a step beyond Idaho’s recommendations in suggesting staggered dismissal and arrival times to reduce crowds, developing relaxed absentee and sick policies, and how to handle sports.
Idaho’s school reopening plan defers to the Idaho High School Activities Association for sporting events. The IHSAA has not yet released its guidance for fall high school sports. Ty Jones, the executive director of the IHSAA, said it plans to present those plans to its board late next week or early the following week for a vote.
Health officials suggest reviewing all planned events, including assemblies, for physical distancing regardless of what category a school is in. In Category 2, it prescribes finding ways to minimize the transmission risk for players, families, coaches and communities.
That could include limiting fans in attendance, encouraging face coverings and streaming games online. It also could suggest schools “discourage activities that promote heavy breathing (e.g. singing, cheering, shouting) and create alternative ways to show support (e.g. clapping or waving).”
Health officials recommend canceling any extracurricular activities or large events when schools close after a positive COVID-19 test.