BOISE — Idaho’s 300,000 schoolkids in grades K-12 can return to schools this fall, with flexible learning strategies to protect them and their communities during the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Brad Little said last week.
The plan, unanimously approved by the Idaho State Board of Education a few hours earlier, says schools must be prepared to teach students with traditional face-to-face methods in the classroom, distance learning online, or a hybrid combination.
“We don’t want to have a big asterisk next to the (school) year 20-21 and say these kids were lost to the coronavirus gap,” the Republican governor said during a news conference that ran for more than an hour. “That is not acceptable to me, and I don’t think that is acceptable to the people of Idaho.”
The Idaho Back To School Framework 2020 plan mainly gives decision-making authority to local school districts along with advice from local health districts, but also says the types of teaching will depend on the level of virus transmission in the local community. Those guidelines are based on “no,” “moderate” or “substantial” community transmission. Specific numbers to define those guidelines aren’t contained in the plan.
Little also said Idaho will remain in the fourth and final stage of his reopening plan for two more weeks because of the surging infections that caused the state to fall short of benchmarks needed to lift restrictions. Ada County has reverted to the more restrictive stage 3 due to increased infections largely blamed on bar customers in Boise.
State officials closed schools in late March, switching to online learning that extended through the end of the school year.
“It’s not a matter of if, but a matter of how schools reopen,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra said at the news conference.
Online learning can also lead to disadvantages for some students with no or poor internet access, or families who can’t afford electronic devices for students. Idaho has a constitutional mandate to teach children, and it’s not clear that’s possible to do if enough students opt for online learning with Idaho’s internet infrastructure that is limited or lacking in many places in mostly rural Idaho. Little said the state has been working hard on that issue on a number of fronts to improve internet access. He also noted that rural areas lacking in internet access tend to have the fewest virus infections.