Thursday, August 13, 2020
Blaine Schools Trustee Says We Must Get It Right This Time for the Sake of Our Kids
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Saturday, July 25, 2020
 

STORY AND PHOTO BY KAREN BOSSICK

 Blaine County School students will get three more weeks of summer vacation than planned after the school board voted Thursday night to push the first day of school back to Sept. 8.

 Students had originally been slated to start the week of Aug. 17. Teachers will now return to school Aug. 26 and principals and secretaries this coming Monday.

 Board President Keith Roark noted that the school calendar is always a contentious issue with a large number of parents and teachers favoring a post-Labor Day start. But the decision to push the date was predicated because of the COVID pandemic.

 “Moving the date back to September provides several benefits,” he said. “First, we gain additional time to adopt a re-entry plan that is still in need of significant refinement. Second, as other districts start up their various re-entry programs, we have the ability to watch and learn from actual experience. Third, we will have more information about how COVID-19 is or is not being contained in this district and will thus be in a better position to decide which plan best suits the prevailing situation.”

 Finally, he said, the bulk of the tourist season will conclude Labor Day, reducing the number of people coming from areas with high rates of COVID-19 into Blaine County.

 The school district could have started the school year on August 17 but not with the same degree of preparation, Roark said.

 “I am personally concerned that, by Sept. 8, our students will have been out of the classroom for about six months. That creates a learning gap that is very difficult to close and may result in a permanent loss of curriculum mastery,” he said. “The emotional/mental well-being of our students is also a concern the board shares and all this time away from the classroom clearly has a negative effect on children. In effect, we are trying to balance the safety of our students with their need to be in the classroom having live contact with their teachers and fellow students.”

 The school board has been grappling with how to handle school during a pandemic since mid-March when schools shut down as the virus spread through the community.

 But it hasn’t gotten any easier as the months have gone on. Just as the state seemed to be getting a handle on its COVID cases, rates began shooting up in the Treasure and Magic Valleys. And the Centers for Disease Control has been criticized on a national level for not providing schools with clear guidelines.

 “Re-entry this fall has many complicated aspects that are unprecedented in schools,” said Trustee Lara Stone. “We need to re-think safety and sick leave policies, decide how to best reach students in different locations, and develop mask policies, to name just a few.”

 To aid in this, Stone proposed a vetting committee made up of school administrators and teachers that will vet the district’s plans leading up to the first day of school. A second committee headed by Trustee Dan Turner has been established to explore options for online learning. That committee hopes to have a proposal by the time school starts or shortly thereafter.

 So far, the district is looking at three scenarios for the upcoming school year. Plan A would involve in-person learning as usual with social distancing and, perhaps, masks. Plan B involves in-person learning for half the class a couple days a week and for the other half of the class a couple days a week so that not all students are in school at the same time. Plan C involves distance learning with no in-person schooling.

 The district will decide which plan to use about two weeks before the start of the school year with imput from South Central Public Health District officials. The key is to remain flexible as changing COVID circumstances could force the district to revert to distance learning. Or, conversely, improving circumstances could allow for near-normal in-person learning.

 The board voted to allow football, soccer and other athletes to begin practicing Aug. 10 with social distance guidelines in place.

 “One has to hope that we will have an effective vaccine widely available in the not too distant future and our students can return to their classrooms on a full-time basis,” said Roark. “I have not yet seen a re-entry plan from any district that stands well above the others.”

 Roark said he is excited about the district’s new web cameras, which will greatly expand the district’s  ability to deliver high quality, locally produced, content to students.

 “There are a number of parents who have made it clear that they will not send their children back into our buildings until we have an effective vaccine or can otherwise be absolutely convinced that those children will be safe,” he said. “The children of those parents need to learn. And I don't believe they should simply be shunted off to the Idaho Digital Learning Academy plan, which is produced by people not associated with our district.”

Roark said the new system will also be useful for students who contract the virus or live in a household where someone with active symptoms and a positive test resides.

 “Those kids will be quarantined for an unknown period of time up to 14 days. And, therefore, they will be effectively out of class and falling behind their fellow students, perhaps permanently. With an effective online program (and we cannot seriously claim our distance learning program last Spring was truly effective) we can reach those kids and keep them moving forward,” he said. “We have to get it right this time for the sake of our students.”

The school board adopted seven guiding principles Thursday last night to help trustees evaluate each aspect of the plan.

  • Principle 1: Healthy students and staff should be in school as much as possible.
  • Principle 2: Schools must be as safe as possible for students and staff.
  • Principle 3: Teachers should be able to reach students in multiple locations, both synchronously and asynchronously.
  • Principle 4: Providing a regular schedule will help students, families and staff be as successful as possible in every plan.
  • Principle 5: Teachers need support in this new learning environment.
  • Principle 6: Students across the district should have equitable access to learning, regardless of where that learning takes place.

“The administration has developed an extensive initial draft of the re-entry plan and the board, with all due haste, wants to work through each section of it with staff and experts, as appropriate, to ensure we are developing a functional plan that meets our principles and follows best practices,” said Stone.

 “There are many examples around the world of ways other districts are addressing these same issues. We will use the additional time we have gained by delaying the start of school to ensure we have a robust plan in place. And, as each piece falls into place, we will communicate decisions and policies to our staff, parents and community.”

 The Blaine County School Board plans to hold another special meeting on Thursday, July 30.

COVID CASES CONTINUE TO CLIMB

Idaho reported 528 new cases on Friday for a total of 17,264. The state added four more deaths on Friday and now has 144 deaths attributed to COVID. Deaths were reported in Ada, Canyon, Elmore and Kootenai counties.

 Blaine County remained steady at 560 cases since mid-March.

 

 

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