By Zach Hagadone
The Idaho State Board of Education released its guidance July 9 for resuming in-person instruction during the 2020-2021 academic year.
In a 46-page document, the state’s top schools authority outlined a three-tiered decision-making framework by which local districts can determine what “learning model” should be put in place at school buildings amid the ongoing — and intensifying — COVID-19 pandemic.
Lake Pend Oreille School District Superintendent Tom Albertson told the Sandpoint Reader in an email following release of the guidance that, “This will be the framework LPOSD will be using to develop a plan over the next three weeks.”
In a separate email, sent to parents and other LPOSD stakeholders, Albertson wrote that district staff members have been working through the July in preparation for reopening schools this fall.
“This plan will include flexibility to accommodate families with varying educational opportunities, including face-to-face and online education,” he wrote. “Details of the plans will be released in the first week of August, at least one month prior to the start of school.”
The state framework is general by design to account for district-by-district conditions. Broken into three categories, the first is defined as a situation in which no community transmission of the virus is present and school buildings would be fully open as with traditional operations.
In Category 2, with “minimal to moderate” community transmission, a “hybrid/blended” strategy would be put in place, including limited or staggered use of school buildings via targeted closure, short-term closure of one to four weeks, or mid-term closure of four to six weeks. As defined elsewhere in the guidance, the “hybrid/blended” model uses remote learning technology and media.
In Category 3, with “substantial” community transmission, instruction would move to a full distance and remote learning model with school buildings closed in excess of six weeks.
No matter what, as Gov. Brad Little wrote in an introductory letter to the state guidance, the coming school year “certainly will not look the same as in previous years.” Even in Category 1, fully reopened school buildings will operate with physical distancing and sanitation protocols in place.
Those policies would remain in place with Category 2 — the criterion of “minimal to moderate” community transmission being defined as “widespread and/or sustained transmission with high likelihood of confirmed exposure within communal settings, with potential for rapid increase in suspected cases.”
The Category 3 definition for “substantial” community transmission includes “healthcare staffing significantly impacted, multiple cases within communal settings like healthcare facilities, schools, mass gatherings, etc.”
Yet, as Little wrote in his letter, “I expect all our school buildings to safely reopen in the fall for in-person instruction. Despite incredible advances in digital learning, you can never replace the value and impact of in-person interaction with a professional, dedicated teacher.”
However, the reality remains that as case numbers continue to rise dramatically in the runup to early August, the state’s framework contains protocols for handling the near certainty that a case of COVID-19 will be confirmed within a school building. In such a case, administrators and health district officials would begin contact tracing with further recommendations coming from local public health guidance “on a case-by-case basis.”
Responses could include isolation or self-quarantine of those individuals found to have tested positive for the virus, suspected of having been exposed or in close contact with a positive case; dismissal of students and most staff for one or two days; or extended school closure.
The decision-making categories include directives for educational and support efforts geared toward families, parental screening of students before they attend school to ensure they aren’t showing any symptoms of the virus, daily health screenings of employees and students upon entry to school buildings, self-reporting of symptoms or exposure to positive cases and closing off facility areas where a sick person has been present in order to undertake a deep clean after 24 hours.
The framework draws on input from the governor’s office, State Board Education, Idaho Department of Education, Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and all seven public health districts, and was developed by the State Board of Education along with a committee of K-12 education stakeholders convened by the governor.
Though a state-level document, it puts the onus on individual districts — working in conjunction with regional public health officials — to establish in detail how to respond in each category, as well as how they will formulate testing and contact tracing policies, protocols and procedures; the nuts and bolts of how to accomplish social distancing in classrooms never designed for such physical space; personnel policies for responding to positive testing; and everything in between. Not to mention how teachers are to organize their lesson plans to account for the possibility of in-person instruction mingled with distance learning — or the absence of face-to-face teaching altogether. All the while, the state guidance indicated that “standard operating procedures for the administration of assessments” are to be implemented by districts.
Local districts will also be expected to figure out the types, quantities and use of personal protective equipment, as well as how to work with families on how — or whether — their students should attend school and, if need be, provide families with the necessary tools to undertake distance learning.
According to Albertson, the initial results of a district survey in June show that more than 75% of local families want to send their students back to school for face-to-face instruction, with the remainder of respondents being unsure.
Lack of certainty is baked into the State Board of Education guidance.
“As the situation is continually evolving, this guidance will likely change, be amended or augmented as conditions change,” wrote the authors of the document. “The guidelines and best practices are not designed to be overly prescriptive, but seek to provide local education agencies with a framework for decision making as they develop a district contingency plan, using local community health trends and statewide data.”
That flexibility and willingness to adapt to changing conditions has not been reflected by top federal officials, including U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who on July 12 told CNN unequivocally that, “Kids need to get back to school, they need to get back in the classroom, families need for kids to get back in the classroom and it can be done safely.”
“Situations are going to be different, but the rule has got to be that students go back to learning full time,” she added.
Meanwhile, both DeVos and President Donald Trump have threatened to withhold funding for schools that refuse to fully reopen — a unilateral authority that neither possesses, and a stark reversal of DeVos’s longtime advocacy for local control of education. Rather, the majority of education funding is allocated at the state level, with a portion coming from the U.S. Congress.
If executive officials such as Trump and DeVos are to follow through with their threat to close the purse strings on schools reluctant to return to five-day, in-person instruction, that would first have to be approved by Congress, according to The Washington Post.
Still, in a meeting on public school reopening July 7, Trump vowed that, “We’re very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to reopen the schools.”
In contrast, Idaho’s guidance has been that, “Until a vaccine and/or therapeutics are available for COVID-19, schools must be prepared to provide varied learning opportunities to their students using a variety of modalities” — including either full- or part-time distance learning.
As Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra said at a July 9 press conference, alongside Little, “There’s no one-size-fits-all approach. When schools reopen this fall, communities will be in different stages of the pandemic. … So I fully support the direction about local communities and districts deciding how and when to reopen.”
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