By Lyndsie Kiebert and Zach Hagadone
Both the state and Panhandle Health District continue their upward trend in new cases of the novel coronavirus, as the latter — which covers Idaho’s five northernmost counties — surpassed 2,000 confirmed cases Aug. 5, adding 76 more for a total of 2,034 districtwide, 722 of which are active.
State reporting of confirmed and probable COVID-19 cases reached 22,707 and 217 deaths on Aug. 5, according to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. At the same time, Panhandle Health District reported 17 new cases in Bonner County, bringing the county’s total to 171 cases since virus tracking began in mid-March, 58 of which are active.
Rising numbers in the Idaho Panhandle have been to blame for a myriad of event cancellations since May. The latest came Aug. 4, when Schweitzer Mountain Resort announced that Fall Fest, slated for Sept. 4-7, had been canceled “[d]ue to the current environment surrounding large events and the risks associated with COVID-19.”
Meanwhile, Bonner County Fair Director Darcey Smith confirmed to the Reader that the fair, scheduled for Aug. 19-22, is still happening. She said organizers will put in place stations for washing and sanitizing hands, gloves and masks will be provided to volunteers, officials are “encouraging visitors to wear masks” and events such as the market animal sale will have modified seating to limit crowding.
“We are glad to have a fair,” Smith said. “It will be modified for safety concerns, but we are still going to have our annual fair.”
Event cancellations and mask mandates are popping up more and more across the state. The city of Moscow recently extended its requirement for face coverings through early October and, closer to home, the PHD board voted July 23 to approve a mask mandate for Kootenai County.
The Kootenai County mask order has drawn widespread opposition, prompting a “Citizens Against Mask Mandate Rally” on Aug. 4 in downtown Coeur d’Alene. Featured speakers included Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, and Rep. Tim Remington, R-Coeur d’Alene, alongside other vocal mask opponents.
In an interview with Spokane-based KHQ, one attendee wearing a Heather Scott hat said: “[I’m] more pro-freedom than I am anti-mask. You do your thing, I’ll do mine. We’ll get along just fine, we will.”
Among the speakers at the event were Bonner County PHD board members Glen Bailey and Allen Banks — who voted against the mask mandate — as well as Bonner County resident Paul Herndon, who filed a petition July 31 in Idaho District Court claiming that the health board’s July 17 and July 23 meetings violated open meeting laws. Herndon and fellow plaintiffs Angelo Brunson and Daniel Schattner argue that due to those alleged violations, the mask order should be considered “null and void.”
According to court documents, Herndon lives in Sagle, while Brunson and Schattner are both residents and restaurant owners in Kootenai County. The petitioners pointed to technical problems with video conferencing and telephonic communications that they allege limited both board members’ and the public’s ability to adequately hear the proceedings.
In particular, the plaintiffs took issue with board member Walt Kirby calling in via a cell phone that “was not connected to any of the authorized District telecommunications devices,” nor routed to the video conferencing platform Zoom, nor to individual members of the board, according to the complaint.
The board entered a recess at one point to reconnect Kirby to the meeting, and the Boundary County commissioner shared repeatedly that he was having a hard time hearing what was being said by other participants.
Plaintiffs also argue that PHD violated open meeting laws by limiting in-person attendance to both of the July meetings in order to meet social distancing protocols and by not providing an alternative to the video conferencing platform to accommodate more members of the public. Beyond that, the complaint claims the meeting did not include an adequate number and size of monitors to deliver audio to attendees who were unable to be in the meeting room and called into question whether a cell phone used to communicate with Kirby was “an effective or lawful telecommunications device” in the context of the meeting.
PHD spokesperson Katherine Hoyer told the Reader, “It’s our position that the meetings were proper and the actions taken were legal. Our legal counsel will be filing an answer to the petition.”
Schools planning for the pandemic
The Lake Pend Oreille School District unveiled a new website Aug. 4 featuring its draft reopening plan for the 2020-2021 academic year.
The plan, accessible at covid.lposd.org, lays out the basic protocols to be used by district schools when they open their doors to students and staff on Sept. 8 and is based on a four-tiered, color-coded rubric based on the prevalence of COVID-19 in the county.
Taking its cue from guidance released in July by the Idaho State Board of Education, the LPOSD plan calls for a traditional five-day-per week, in-person schedule at the “green level,” which means there is no identified community spread of COVID-19.
At the “yellow” level — meaning “minimal to moderate community spread” — school operations would emphasize reducing mingling among students and staff first by shortening the school day to maximize face-to-face instructional time while limiting class sizes to allow for social distancing.
Elementary school students would only interact with other students from their class, or “cohort.” Should a positive case be reported either by a student or teacher, only that cohort would be required to transition to distance learning. Face coverings “are expected to be worn” during arrival and dismissal, as well as other “transition times” when students may come into contact with other cohorts. Staff is expected to wear a face covering.
Secondary students, meanwhile, would be expected to wear face coverings throughout the day as their schedules require them to move between several classrooms.
Classes would begin at 8:20 a.m. for elementary and 8:30 a.m. for secondary students, with dismissal at 12:40 p.m. for Sandpoint Middle School; 12:45 p.m. for Sandpoint, Clark Fork and Lake Pend Oreille high schools; and 1 p.m. for district elementary schools.
To compensate for the shortened in-person instructional schedule, all students — other than half-day kindergarteners — would be required to undertake some period of distance learning each day. Times vary by grade level and school, from as little as 15 minutes per day to 30 minutes per class per day.
The “orange” level would transition to a “hybrid” schedule with two days of in-person instruction and three days of distance learning, and the “red” level would mean full online-only instruction.
Find the full breakdown on the covid.lposd.org website.
“For your planning purposes, today we would start school in the yellow blended-learning model,” LPOSD Superintendent Tom Albertson wrote in an email Aug. 4 to district parents and guardians. “[P]lease be reminded that this plan is fluid and can be adapted as needed for unforeseen reasons.”
Regardless, LPOSD will institute increased sanitization and cleaning protocols at all facilities, and follow quarantine procedures for students and staff who have either tested positive, show symptoms of COVID-19 or have been in “close contact” — defined as being within six feet for 15 minutes or more — with an individual who has tested positive.
Parents or guardians who are uncomfortable with their students attending any level of in-person instruction can register for a fully online option, which would be provided for free to students K-12 through the Idaho Digital Learning Academy. To enroll students K-6 in the online-only option, contact IDLA Coordinator Meagan Hofmeister at [email protected]. For grades 7-12, registration will be through individual school counselors, who can be contacted through school offices.
Albertson alerted parents and guardians that they should expect an email from their students’ schools beginning the week of Monday, Aug. 10, requesting information about whether they plan to enroll for 2020-’21 and, if so, whether that will be according to the color-coded protocols or fully online.
“Much time and thought has gone into this plan with the hopes of keeping schools open,” Albertson wrote. “This can only happen with the full cooperation of all students, staff and parents working together to ensure the safety protocols are followed.”
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