The Idaho State Board of Education cracked open the door for any public schools wanting to reopen this year.
Following a confusing statewide school closure issued last week, the State Board laid down the gauntlet Thursday for any school wishing to reopen this year or this summer.
Idaho State Board of Education Minimum Re-entry Criteria:
- No statewide or local social distancing restrictions, including stay-home orders or extensive closures of businesses are in place.
- The peak of the state infection curve has passed, as determined by the State Department of Health and Welfare, and a minimum 14 days have passed from the identified peak. In those instances where local community spread has occurred, the local infection curve will be evaluated for determining the 14 consecutive days. School districts and charter schools located in counties that have experienced no community spread at the time state restrictions are lifted may have the 14 consecutive days criteria waived with approval by the local public health district.
- Approval by the local public health district, after review of school district and charter school cleaning and disinfection protocols.
- Re-entry plan approved by the local board of trustees identifying minimum school protocols (see list below).
Required Minimum School Protocols:
- Cleaning and disinfection protocols.
- Identify a plan for vulnerable staff and students with special emphasis on people over age 60 and those who are medically vulnerable.
- Identify and plan for staff duties which require close contact.
- Absenteeism plan for staff and students whose parents do not feel comfortable returning their student to school and for students who show symptoms of the coronavirus.
- Communications plan for informing parents and staff of the school district and charter school response plans, protocols, and policies to manage the impact of the coronavirus.
- Reopening plans are reviewed in consultation with local public health officials.
These re-entry criteria are subject to change in order to adapt to changing circumstances. Additional criteria will be developed for a fall start of the school year, based on conditions at the time.
The State Board voted unanimously to approve the criteria.
“It goes without saying it doesn’t force a district or charter or school to do anything,” Greg Wilson, Gov. Brad Little’s education adviser, testified during Thursday’s board meeting. “Rather, it provides a clear process out of a soft closure into normal operations for those districts who are thinking about doing it this school year.”
The guidelines leave schools a narrow, but not impossible, pathway to reopen this year.
Little only extended his latest stay-home order until April 30. Provided he doesn’t extend it again — a big if — schools could target a May 1 return. Updated public projections referenced by the State Board show April 8 as Idaho’s peak for infections.
That would leave schools to get approval from their local health district of cleaning and disinfection protocol. But the largest hurdle could come from school boards, who will need to muster the political will to reopen their campuses for the final three or four weeks amid a global pandemic.
“If all of the conditions are met, the (local school) board may or may not decide to open school,” State Board member Linda Clark said. “It is that local board’s decision.”
Nearly every one of Idaho’s public schools closed in March against the advice of public health officials as the coronavirus made its first appearance in Idaho. Since then, more than 1,500 Idaho residents have tested positive for the coronavirus and 41 have died as of Thursday morning.
The rate of positive tests has slowed, but less than 1% of Idaho’s population has been tested due to limited capacity.
A handful of school districts didn’t wait for the State Board’s guidelines. The Boise, Vallivue, Blaine County and Pocatello-Chubbuck school districts opted to close their doors for the year before waiting for further instructions from the State Board.
Others delayed their decisions, waiting for the State Board’s guidelines.
SCHOOLS MUST HAVE ABSENTEE PLAN
Local school boards also must establish plans for students and staff who don’t want to return to a reopened school.
The State Board didn’t require what those plans look like, again leaving it to each district. But school districts must identify and plan for vulnerable teachers and students, including those over 60 and those with medical issues. Schools must also plan for students “whose parents do not feel comfortable returning their students to school.”
“It’s very general in this document,” Wilson said, “because there is no shortage of different examples or circumstances that districts or charters threw at us.”
LOOKING TO THE FALL
The State Board cast an eye to how schools could reopen in the fall, warning the criteria it set Thursday will evolve as it learns more about the coronavirus.
Board member Kurt Liebich said two questions keep him up at night. Will local communities remain under social distancing orders until a vaccine is found? And if they do, how could schools send students back into buildings?
“I don’t think any of us have the answers to either of those questions today,” Liebich said. “But I think this criteria at least gives us a starting point for the remainder of this year. And then I think we have to transition our conversation to how we think about next year.”
GOVERNOR PUNTS ON SCHOOL CLOSURE
Little declined to follow his fellow governors Wednesday, again publicly leaving school closures to the State Board. Little appoints seven of the eight board members. State Superintendent Sherri Ybarra is the only elected member.
While announcing his extended stay-home order Wednesday, he said nothing in it referred to schools.
“I expect the State Board and the (education) department, in conjunction with the school boards and the trustees, to do the right thing,” Little said Wednesday.
He did not elaborate on what the right thing was. But he later added schools should work with their local health districts, the state education department and the State Board.
“Each school district has to craft a plan relative to the health conditions of their community, relative to what their students are,” Little said. “I would love to have all kids go back to school tomorrow, but prudence dictates that I can’t do that.
“… They will just have to address it on a district by district basis.”
So far, 22 other states have ordered their schools closed for the year or recommended it. The governor made that announcement in 19 of those states, including neighboring Utah, Washington and Oregon.
The state superintendent announced it in two states. Oklahoma is the only other state to rely on its state board of education.