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Friday, September 25, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Boise Schools will start online to slow COVID-19. ‘The risk is way too high right now.’

UPDATED: Wed., Aug. 5, 2020

By Michael Lycklama Idaho Statesman

The Boise School District will open on time Aug. 17. But all students will begin the year in online classes as the district tries to slow the spread of the coronavirus in Ada County, one of the state’s hot spots.

The Boise School Board abandoned its plan to reopen schools for in-person learning five days a week during a meeting Tuesday night. Instead, all classes will remain online for at least three weeks, until Sept. 8, the day after the Labor Day holiday.

Boise will reevaluate on Aug. 24 whether it can safely reopen school buildings after Labor Day. It needs two weeks to fully prepare for in-person education, Boise Superintendent Coby Dennis said during Tuesday’s meeting.

“As a community, we had all summer to get these (COVID-19) numbers down and to get these numbers into a safe place that we could offer in-person learning and get our kids back into school,” Boise School Board member Beth Oppenheimer said. “But unfortunately, as a community, we were not able to do that.

“I will say that I am begging our community – I’m begging our parents, our businesses, our community members – to do the hard work right now to get these numbers under control so that we can open our schools. I want nothing more.”

Boise first unveiled plans to reopen schools five days a week on June 10, before coronavirus cases spiked in Ada County. Ada County had 795 confirmed coronavirus cases then. It had 7,780 confirmed cases as of Tuesday evening, nearly 10 times as many.

Leaders of the Treasure Valley’s hospitals and health clinics have warned multiple times in the past two weeks that they are on the verge of getting overwhelmed.

Boise’s decision to move online follows Central District Health’s recommendations. The local health district placed all Ada County schools in the highest level of community spread (Category 3/red) of Idaho’s back-to-school guidelines Monday.

That comes with a recommendation to keep school buildings closed, but it’s up to local school boards to make the final decision.

Central District Health will re-evaluate its health data and announce updated recommendations for schools each Monday.

Boise Schools received an overwhelming public response ahead of its decision, which was delayed to Tuesday after technical problems canceled Monday’s online board meeting. More than 4,000 tuned into the online broadcast, 44 signed up to testify and the district received more than 800 emails about its reopening plan.

Dennis said the emails were split about down the middle. Half wanted schools to open; half wanted to move classes online.

But school board member Dave Wagers said it falls on the board to ensure a safe environment for students, teachers and their families.

“Even if one teacher – God forbid, worst-case scenario – contracts COVID-19 and dies, then that would be on me for the rest of my life,” Wagers said. “I’m not ready to take that risk. I think the risk is way too high right now.”

Boise adds to the varied approaches Treasure Valley schools are taking during a global pandemic.

West Ada, the state’s largest school district, delayed its first day of school until Sept. 8. Nampa pushed its opening day to Aug. 24 and then plans to start online for at least two weeks. Vallivue, meanwhile, will open with an alternating schedule and students in classrooms Aug. 19.

Dennis said Boise can safely reopen if its community spread falls into Category 2 (yellow) of Idaho’s back-to-school guidelines. He said Central District Health told him that if the community wears masks, practices social distancing and washes their hands, the disease will slow and Boise might reach that status in four to six weeks.

“This is not a political statement. It’s just the facts,” Dennis said. “If we do those three things, then we get to do what we all want, and that is get our kids back in school.”

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