Sunday, March 7, 2021
‘We’re Balancing the Loss of Education with Risk’
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Students take a part in a Y School Camp on the days they’re not in school.
   
Thursday, January 21, 2021
 

STORY AND PHOTO BY KAREN BOSSICK

GRAPH BY PAUL RIES

Interim Superintendent Fritz Peters has recommended that the Blaine County School District allow Carey School to return fully to in-person classes. And he’s recommending that in-person classes be expanded for elementary school students.

“My recommendation is that we follow the data,” he told the Blaine County School Board Tuesday night.

 
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Blaine County reported 32 new cases of coronavirus on Wednesday for a total of 1,784 cases—its worst day since April 3, according to graph analyst Paul Ries. “Our seven-day average is worse than it has been since April 8 when we hadn’t yet bent the curve,” he added. “In fact, we have to go all the way back to the beginning of the pandemic when cases were surging here to find a worse time for us in Blaine County.”
 

“I’ve been thinking of pretty much not much else in the last month and a half,” he said. “Emails are a constant drumbeat of parents pleading for their children to return to full school.”

Peters said he is concerned that the district’s youngest students are falling behind in their ability to read.  Hemingway School students who go to school four days a week are memorizing letters and sounds much faster than those on two-day-a-week schedules.

And Carey students are clamoring to return to full in-person schooling.

“Carey kids don’t have Baldy. A huge part of their lives is school and sports. They’re coming in on days they’re not supposed to be there,” he said.

 
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While Blaine County’s numbers are going up, the number of new cases statewide and in Twin Falls County are going down. Idaho reported 810 new cases on Wednesday for a total of 157,588. To date 61,333 Idahoans have receive vaccine doses—1,130 of them in Blaine County.
 

The vast majority of schools in Idaho are offering more in-person learning than Blaine schools, Peters said. And the scientific data shows that, especially at elementary level, there is no significant level of any kind of spread of the coronavirus.

“The little ones just don’t spread it,” he said.

The School Board will make a decision about what to do with the remainder of the school year at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 27. That—and a prep day on Feb. 5—would give teachers enough time to rearrange their classrooms should the board vote to expand in-person learning.

Peters told the board that the hybrid form of learning, in which students are only in the classroom two days a week, has been debilitating for many families. Some parents have lost wages because they’re staying home with their children.

At the same time, he added, more than 50 percent of staff are not comfortable with returning to full classes because it would mean reduced social distancing.

“We’re balancing the loss of education with the risk,” he said. “There are very few professions where they say we’re going to put you in a room with 25 other people. Schools are the anti-social distancing industry of the entire world.  But I think we need to start moving forward because so many other districts have, and some are doing so without any protocols at all. No masks, no social distancing.”

Peters said one option is staying in the hybrid model until the vaccinations that started last week for teachers take effect.

So far, 242 teachers have gotten their first dose or have an appointment to get their first dose, said the district’s Brooke Marshall. Peters said about 80 percent of teachers have indicated they want to get the vaccines.

But the Moderna vaccine, which is being administered in the Wood River Valley, is a six-week process from the time of the first shot to the time the person can be assured of 95 percent protection. Health officials have said a person should have at least 50 percent efficacy within two weeks of the first dose; the second dose is administered four weeks after the first.

Peters said that South Central District Health hopes to set up vaccination clinics in the schools as soon as it gets its mobile vaccination clinics up and running. He said he is also working with Dr. Julie Lyons to put together a video that answers frequently asked questions about the vaccines.

School Board Keith Roark said he was reluctant to allow only Carey School to go back full time because that could create a stampede of students from other Blaine County schools heading to Carey.

“I think we have an obligation to provide an equal education to all of our students. If Carey has a full in-class regimen that’s not available at Wood River High or Wood River Middle School, that’s an equity issue,” he said.

Roark added he realizes families are suffering because they can’t afford child care:

“We are, however, in the education business. We aren’t in the child care business. And when teachers complain to me they don’t feel like they should be put at risk so child care can be provided, I understand.”

Roark said if the district does return to the classroom model it should be in phases.

“You can’t say: Okay, on the eighth of February everybody report back to school. You can treat K-3rd grade in small groups where kids aren’t mixing. It’s different in the secondary schools.”

Roark said he doesn’t regret the district’s conservative approach to the school year. But, he said, now health officials know kids don’t spread the virus as much as was initially thought. With a couple exceptions every confirmed case of COVID-19 has been the result of contact outside school and not inside.

And, he said, education officials now know that pre-K to second graders may not be able to make up the reading skills they’re losing right now.

“There are some risks (to reverting back to full classes)--no question about it,” he added. “But at some point you have to balance risk against deprivation to the educational future of our youngest students.”

Peters said high school students have seen some silver linings to the hybrid model. They feel like they’ve gotten to know teachers better because of the smaller classes they’re in. And there’s much less drama. Students get along better because they’re happy to be there and they aren’t continually banging into one another in crowded hallways.

“Some say they don’t want to go back to a five-day-a-week, seven-period a -day rat race,” Peters said. “They like the slower pace.”

That said, some have said their days out of school feel like days off and it’s harder to get motivated to work.

“Seniors have asked if they could come back full force for their fourth quarter,” he said. “That would allow them to have final quarter all together for traditional events.”

NINE OUT WITH COVID

This week the Blaine County School District has three staff members and six students who have tested positive. Twenty-five staff members are quarantining and 57 students.

 

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