The 30 students in Anna Goodson’s Hope Squad class at Hillcrest High School began Thursday’s class with journaling. They wrote and shared one thing that gave them hope in the last day or two — rides to restaurants for lunch, free cookies, help with a math problem. Once they shared a bit of personal positivity, they got started on planning ways to reach out to others.

Those outreach events are harder to organize this fall. Sports at the high school level have returned across Idaho with guidance from the Idaho High School Activities Association, but other clubs and events are coming back more slowly.

Both Bonneville Joint School District 93 and Idaho Falls School District 91 asked clubs and extracurricular events, planned by groups such as the Hope Squad, to start the school year closed and work to establish plans to safely operate as the year continued. Goodson said the Hope Squad class is largely operating as normal during the day with the coronavirus safety measures in place, but the larger events the class usually plans for the student body have been more limited.

“We usually have a week of events during lunch (in late October) for any student that wants to come participate, and that’s going to change,” Goodson said.

HOPE Squad is a peer support group and class, where students organize events to help others get through mental health issues ranging from minor feelings of loneliness to suicidal thoughts. The program was first launched in Provo, Utah, in the early 2000s, and similar groups are running at Bonneville High School, Thunder Ridge High School, Compass Academy and hundreds of other schools nationwide.

Hillcrest’s Hope Squad class has a regular daily meeting and works with students at multiple grade levels. Junior Adelyn Beattie stepped out of the class Thursday to check the Hope Squad locker in the nearby hallway. Students can use the locker to drop off anonymous concerns about one of their fellow students, which the members of the class use as cues to reach out and see if there is anything they can do to help.

So far the HOPE Squad has received and responded to a few notes in the locker, dropped off nice notes on cars in the school parking lot and left candy notes for freshmen and seniors. Beattie, who said she joined the class this year because she knew the trust students had in the program, was optimistic their efforts could continue to make an impact.

“I think what we’ve done so far has hit well, and we’re off to a good start,” Beattie said.

Club waivers and safety committees

Gordon Howard helps lead the safety committee in District 93, which reviews the plans for school clubs and events trying to find ways to return this fall. Most plans that Howard and the committee have reviewed were approved with some limitations.

Many events and clubs wanted to have food, which the district has cut back on because it would be a possible point of infection. Attendance limits were added to events such as the Miss Bonneville pageant and honor society ceremonies. The events that have faced the most difficulty in returning are this fall’s homecoming dances.

“We’re still in discussion about those plans because of the nature of a dance that’s bringing that many students together. We still have concerns about having a positive case in that group because there’s no way to contact trace that many people,” Howard said.

Idaho Falls High School created a special waiver for participants in the school’s clubs and extracurricular events. By signing the waiver, parents and students say they are voluntarily joining the club and “agree to hold School District 91, any of its employees or coaches harmless” if they contract coronavirus or a related illness during the club events.

The high school’s Gaming Club is among the least structured of those clubs. Social studies teacher Natalie Martin inherited the Super Nintendo and PlayStation when she moved classrooms a few years ago and kept the casual approach to the club. Students were free to come in during lunch or any time she wasn’t teaching to hang out, eat and play.

“The hardest part this fall was getting the go-ahead to submit idea for starting the club. It was so loosely structured so the students can just come in if they want,” Martin said.

In addition to signing the waiver to take part in the games, students also sign in and out of the room to help track their close contacts. The split lunches at the high school level cut the number of students able to participate during her lunch break in half this fall. Martin said the club has seen a max of four students at a time so far but felt that colder weather and growing word-of-mouth could help draw more people in.

“Today seems like one of the first times that you can hear students interacting and chatting with each other in the halls. At least for me, everything was so quiet and so solemn before,” Martin said.

Return of high school debate programs undecided

Rigby High School won the state debate championship in 2019. The championship for the 2019-20 school year was canceled days before it was supposed to happen in March because of the state’s coronavirus lockdown, leaving Rigby as the default reigning school for a second year.

Rigby’s team competed in a national competition over the summer, though with heavily modified rules. Each student was set up in a different classroom at the high school, while teacher and coach Brock Sondrup moved between rooms to offer advice between rounds and deal with technical issues.

The format of the debate remained the same in virtual debates, though Sondrup said the written sections had become especially important.

“There was more focus on research and writing rather than presentation skills because you can’t get the same effect over a camera. In most rounds they emailed each other their arguments in case they couldn’t hear something,” Sondrup said.

Idaho’s debate clubs fall under the IHSAA but plans for the events’ return are fuzzier than for athletics. Sondrup said the district has been cautious about restarting clubs but has been supportive as the program moved toward the start of the season.

The lack of clarity about whether debates would be held in-person or remotely has limited some of this year’s participation at Rigby. Returning students have been working with Sondrup over the first few weeks of the school year to keep up to date on how the season will work.

“It’s been a lot of video calls or students coming in one at a time. It takes more of my time, but it’s worth it to help keep the kids safe,” Sondrup said.

Brennen is the main education reporter for the Post Register. Contact him with news tips at 208-542-6711.