By Zach Hagadone
Gathered for a special early morning meeting Nov. 17, the Lake Pend Oreille District Board of Trustees, along with Superintendent Tom Albertson, looked with a measure of alarm at rising COVID-19 cases in the county and discussed what — if anything — the district should do to get ahead of potential widespread transmission in area schools.
Albertson asked the trustees to consider moving LPOSD into the “red” category effective Monday, Nov. 30 — the first classroom day following Thanksgiving break — while also amending that plan to include language allowing for “partial” remote learning.
According to the COVID-19 response plan approved by the LPOSD trustees in the summer, going into the “red” category would mean full remote learning. The amendment gives the district flexibility to continue providing in-person instruction even as community transmission rises higher.
Trustees voted unanimously to approve the amended language in the “red” plan, but declined to move the district out of its current “yellow” designation, which has all students attending shortened school days and eating lunch in their classrooms while primary students are isolated with their class cohorts both in class and at recess, and secondary students are required to wear face coverings and maintain social distancing.
“One of the things we said we weren’t going to do is change things here and there depending on what we hear from Panhandle Health,” said Board Chairman Cary Kelly, adding that he’d rather wait until after the holiday season to see if case numbers become “more significant” among staff and students.
“The less we move in and out [of categories], the better it’s going to be for everybody,” he said.
Bonner County has already moved its designation to “red,” owing to a recent dramatic surge in cases that has been mirrored statewide, prompting Gov. Brad Little to return Idaho to Stage 2 of its reopening plan.
Some LPOSD trustees cited “public perception” as part of their reluctance to also move the district to “red.” Trustee Gary Suppiger said that while the changes going into the “red” category wouldn’t be all that significant to the operations of district schools or the delivery of instruction, “it would be significant in the community. We have a plan, it’s working, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”
LPOSD’s overall response to limiting COVID-19 transmission has been far more successful than the community at large. Of the approximate 4,000 students, in-building staff and support personnel throughout the district, the peak number of active cases of the virus has been recorded at 14, which as of Nov. 17 was down to 10. As of Nov. 17, there were 259 active cases county-wide. Viewed as a distinct community, 0.25% of LPOSD’s population is actively infected with COVID-19. Subtracting the LPOSD cases, so as not to double count them, 0.54% of the county population has an active case of the virus.
“We are essentially a big experiment right now; we’re the only place in the county where masks are actually being used consistently, no matter what,” said Trustee Lonnie Williams, adding that the inference would be the district’s policies as they stand are working.
“We want to keep it that way,” Albertson said, though underscored that the overall numbers are not overly positive.
As of Nov. 14, the county’s seven-day rolling average of positive cases — which health officials say is the most reliable way to gauge community spread — was 46.5 per 100,000 population. That number is far higher than the 30 per 100,000 population threshold that moved the county to the “red” response category. Since then, Albertson said, the average has lessened to around 40.9 per 100,000, perhaps attributable to the tail-end of a burst of cases related to Halloween gatherings, “but we don’t know,” he said. “I’m glad to see that we’ve settled a little bit, but we’re still above the 30 threshold.”
“What’s going to keep our kids in school is going to be the health of our adults,” Albertson said.
Williams agreed, noting that, “Our cases are not coming from kids going to school and getting other kids sick.”
Still, as Albertson pointed out, “When the community has an increase, all of us have an increased probability of coming into contact with it.”
Given that, many teachers and support staff feel it “just might be a matter of time” before high infection rates penetrate area classrooms, Albertson added, and many district employees — especially frontline educators — are concerned about their and their families’ eventual exposure.
“Our teachers are so good; they are worried about their test scores, they’re worried about the instruction the kids are getting, but they also have to look after their health,” he said. “We have some teachers who have some people they live with who have compromised health situations.”
To allay their fears, the trustees said they interpreted the “yellow” category protocols as allowing school administrators to give authority to educators to alter their teaching practices to minimize exposure, including increased social distancing and mask-wearing. Meanwhile, individual schools may determine their own lunch schedules to avoid students crowding together — maskless — in enclosed areas while they eat.
Trustees agreed that flexibility could be accomplished without having to change categories.
“They want to be able to implement additional safety measures where needed and with the authority to do that,” said Board Vice Chair Geraldine Lewis, who supported “slightingly tightened regulations but still having kids in school.”
“I think it impresses upon our students and families and staff that this is not something to be taken lightly and we should actually be a little more diligent while still keeping kids in school,” she said.
The trustees will meet again Tuesday, Dec. 8 — at the latest — to reassess the protocols. In the meantime, district officials are crossing their fingers that Thanksgiving break won’t precipitate a similar spike in cases as followed Halloween.
“I see Thanksgiving as a safer gathering than Halloween,” Suppiger said.
“We’ll see,” Kelly responded.
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