COVID-19 cases continue to rise, along with tensions over mask orders

By Zach Hagadone
Reader Staff

The Panhandle Health District, covering the five northernmost counties in Idaho, reported 248 new cases of COVID-19 on Nov. 24, bringing the regional total to 8,977 since tracking began in the spring. Of those, 5,724 have been since “closed,” including the 103 district residents who have died from the virus or related causes. As of Nov. 24, a total of 68 people are currently hospitalized.

Health officials reported 1,640 new cases statewide on Nov. 24, bringing the total to 94,730 since March, with 874 deaths.

All five northern counties — Benewah, Bonner, Boundary, Kootenai and Shoshone — are in the “red” category for risk of transmission, in the past week prompting PHD to institute a 60-day district-wide mask order and the Lake Pend Oreille School District trustees voting to remain in the “yellow” category while also approving some amendments to give teachers and administrators more leeway to mitigate exposure. That includes empowering educators to alter classroom policies to keep greater distance from students and allowing administrators to shift lunch schedules so that pupils aren’t crowded — maskless — in enclosed areas while they eat.

Meanwhile, the Idaho State Board of Education, Idaho Public Charter School Commission, Idaho Association of School Administrators and Idaho School Boards Association issued a joint statement Nov. 20, citing Idaho’s “perilous trajectory” in terms of rising case counts.

“As education policy leaders, we urge and plead with communities large and small across Idaho to do their part to help our students be able to stay in school. The pandemic is not partisan,” the groups stated. “Enabling our students to go to school, with all the developmental and extracurricular opportunities it has to offer, is not partisan either. It is a moral and economic imperative.”

Education stakeholders stressed that, “The quickest and most effective way to mitigate this virulent spread is simply to follow the science-based public health protocols of washing hands, maintaining six feet apart and wearing a face mask. Adult behaviors do impact our ability to operate schools.”

Yet, unrest surrounding mask orders has spread quickly across social media, with many groups and individuals referring to those who seek to uphold the mandates as “snitches” while vowing not to comply.

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