Little says he expects COVID-19 school closures to be short

IdahoEdNews.org

Gov. Brad Little said he expects any closures to remain short during the 2020-21 school year, and he expects officials to focus on in-person instruction.

Little delivered his assessment during a news conference Thursday, after two of Idaho’s three largest districts decided to begin the year online as coronavirus continues to spread.

The state’s largest district, West Ada, has delayed its opening day until September and is pushing for a mix of in-person instruction and remote learning.

“The expectation is schools will not be closed for extended periods of time during the 2020-21 academic year,” Little said. “When students are out of the classroom for too long, the achievement gap widens. This gap draws down the progress of all students.”

Little did — once again — say school reopening will look differently in different parts of the state. He also acknowledged the uneasiness some are feeling about returning to classroom.

“I genuinely understand the deep concerns of some teachers and parents about returning to school for in-person instruction,” Little said.

Little used the news conference to highlight Idaho’s effort to reopen schools, much of which relied on federal stimulus funding through the CARES Act:

  • $48 million to help equip schools with computers and Internet connectivity.
  • $21 million for COVID-19 testing for teachers and school staff.
  • $10 million for masks, sanitizer, gloves and Plexiglass for schools.
  • $3 million to improve testing and lab turnaround time to help get results for teachers quickly.
  • $3 million to leverage Idaho pharmacies for testing in rural Idaho.

State Board of Education President Debbie Critchfield, Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra, State Board member Kurt Liebich and Emmett district Superintendent Craig Woods joined Little Thursday.

“We know that computers and websites, apps and videos cannot replace the in-person experience for schools and our students,” said Ybarra, who encouraged the public to wear masks and maintain social distance to help drive down case numbers.

“We’re certainly not suggesting or promoting that public safety be tossed aside for that end (reopening schools),” Critchfield said.

Central District Health on Monday placed the Boise, West Ada and Kuna school districts in the highest risk level, Category 3, for coronavirus transmission. That classification aligns with nonbinding state guidance to close schools and deliver remote learning.

Classifications will be updated every Monday on CDH’s website.

Little and Critchfield emphasized that local school boards are responsible for developing reopening plans.

“If we are at a risk of not having health care capacity, those schools will have to modify it,” Little said. “But the expectation, the default, is we want kids in school.”

Special session update

Liability protection during emergencies and November’s election are two top issues that could be up for discussion during a special legislative session later this month, Little said.

“The one (issue) that we do know is addressing liability for both education and for business and it looks like there is a consensus on elections,” Little said. “There is a lot of talk about education. The consensus part is maybe a little … they’re not quite there yet.”

Little announced Wednesday that he would call a special session — officially called an extraordinary session — the week of Aug. 24.

He will issue a proclamation the week of Aug. 17 detailing the exact issues to be considered.

Last week, two legislative working groups requested a special session while one approved a draft bill dealing with civil liability that the working group hopes the entire Legislature will consider.

The Education Working Group did not reach consensus on individual proposals or draft bills last week. Instead, it simply requested legislative leaders call for a special session to address education issues.

Rep. Wendy Horman, the Idaho Falls Republican who serves as a vice chair of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, said legislators should focus on where they can make a difference now for Idahoans.

“Parents are so worried about this upcoming school year, if there are things we could do in special session that could relieve some of that worry, then we should absolutely do it,” Horman said. “Families are in difficult situations for a variety of different reasons.”