Idaho schools get OK to open to students this fall

FILE - Idaho Republican Gov. Brad Little speaks at the Statehouse in Boise, Idaho on Thursday, July 9, 2020. Little announced a plan for reopening schools in the fall that requires schools to be prepared to teach students with traditional face-to-face methods in the classroom, distance learning online, or a hybrid combination. (AP Photo/Keith Ridler)

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho’s 300,000 schoolkids in grades K-12 can return to schools this fall but with flexible learning strategies to protect them and their communities during the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Brad Little said Thursday.

The plan, unanimously approved by the Idaho State Board of Education a few hours earlier, says schools must be prepared to teach students with traditional face-to-face methods in the classroom, distance learning online, or a hybrid combination.

We don’t want to have a big asterisk next to the (school) year 20/21 and say these kids were lost to the coronavirus gap,” the Republican governor said during a news conference that went over an hour. “That is not acceptable to me, and I don’t think that is acceptable to the people of Idaho.”

The Idaho Back To School Framework 2020 plan mainly gives decision-making authority to local school districts along with advice from local health districts, but also says the types of teaching will depend on the level of virus transmission in the local community.

Those guidelines are based on “no,” “moderate” or “substantial” community transmission. Specific numbers to define those guidelines aren’t contained in the plan.

The plan’s release coincides with surging infections and some half-dozen cities making face coverings mandatory, including the state’s largest city, Boise. More government entities are considering such requirements. But there are a handful of Idaho’s 44 counties reporting no confirmed coronavirus cases.

Little also said Idaho will remain in the fourth and final stage of his reopening plan for two more weeks because of the surging infections that caused the state to fall short of benchmarks needed to lift restrictions.

Ada County has reverted to the more restrictive stage 3 due to increased infections largely blamed on bar customers in Boise who didn’t wear face coverings or practice social distancing when bars reopened several weeks ago. Bars have since been shut down again.

Idaho was just short of 9,000 infections Thursday with 98 deaths, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. And the 14-day trend for the percentage of people testing positive for COVID-19 was at 11.9%, according to the COVID Tracking Project. The positivity rate is a measure of how widespread the disease is in the community, and Idaho guidelines say that number needs to be under 5% to lift restrictions.

State officials closed schools in late March, switching to online learning that extended through the end of the school year and summer. State officials for months have been looking at ways to safely reopen this fall.

“It’s not a matter of if, but a matter of how schools reopen,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra said at the news conference. “Schools do more than just address academics. They also address physical, mental and nutritional services for kids and much much more.”

Online learning can also lead to disadvantages for some students with no or poor internet access, or families who can’t afford electronic devices for students.

Idaho has a constitutional mandate to teach children, and it’s not clear that’s possible to do if enough students opt for online learning with Idaho’s internet infrastructure that is limited or lacking in many places in mostly rural Idaho.

Little said the state has been working hard on that issue on a number of fronts to improve internet access. He also noted that rural areas lacking in internet access tend to have the fewest virus infections.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

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