Idaho’s 2nd-largest school district goes online-only, again

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BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho’s second-largest school district will move to online-only classes after the end of next week because skyrocketing coronavirus cases have forced nearly 1,600 students and staffers into quarantine.

The Boise School District Board of Trustees voted unanimously to move into virtual schooling until Jan. 15. The district is currently using a hybrid teaching model, alternating online and in-person learning days to allow for social distancing within school buildings, and students will continue hybrid learning until Thanksgiving break begins on Nov. 23. When classes resume Nov. 30, they’ll be held entirely online.

Coronavirus-related quarantines have already forced 5 or 6 special education programs to temporarily close, deputy superintendent Lisa Roberts told board members Thursday afternoon, and 1,580 students and staffers are in quarantine because they’ve been infected with COVID-19 or exposed to someone with the virus. There aren’t enough substitute teachers to cover for missing staff, Roberts said.

“Unfortunately, and it makes me sad to say this, we’re at a critical place right now,” said superintendent Coby Dennis. “We really need the community to understand that this is a result of that case counts in our community are so high that it’s affecting our operational abilities.”

Health experts say they’ve found little evidence that schools contribute to coronavirus outbreaks, and that protocols put in place by the Boise district appear to be working to protect students. But many Idaho residents haven’t changed their behavior outside of the classroom, with many still gathering with non-household members, shunning masks and failing to practice social distancing.

Republican Gov. Brad Little has long resisted calls for a statewide mask mandate, instead leaving it up to local health districts to make those decisions. Idaho’s regional health districts are directed by board members, most of whom are laypeople with no healthcare backgrounds.

Boise School Board members voiced frustration that state and local leaders haven’t taken firmer action to slow the spread of the virus. Bars and restaurants remain open across the state, and even local mask mandates go largely unenforced. Meanwhile, the district’s more than 25,000 students will have to attend school from home for weeks.

“It should be Central District Health, who is responsible for community health, or at the state level,” said board president Dave Wagers. “I’m not pleased that we have to make the decision.”

Currently, school principals and non-teaching staffers are filling in where teachers` are absent.

“We are limping through,” said Dennis. He believes the schools can eek by with the current hybrid schedule until the Thanksgiving break, in order to give parents a chance to prepare for having kids home full-time.

“Yes, I think we can sustain it through next week and I think that is a critical component to provide our families an opportunity to prepare for this,” said Dennis. “If we aren’t able to do that, our contingency plan would probably be to shut down our secondary (schools) early to free up resources.”

More than 78,000 Idaho residents have contracted coronavirus since the pandemic began, and at least 749 have died from the virus.

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