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News >  K-12 education

Freedom from face coverings comes at cost of rising COVID-19 cases in North Idaho school district

UPDATED: Tue., Dec. 8, 2020

Lakeland Junior High School students ride the bus to school in Rathdrum on Wednesday. Lakeland School District has a masks-optional policy.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
Lakeland Junior High School students ride the bus to school in Rathdrum on Wednesday. Lakeland School District has a masks-optional policy. (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

RATHDRUM – What pandemic?

To travel from Spokane to northern Kootenai County these days is like taking a step back in time – nine months, to be exact.

As the lunch-hour crowd filled a small eatery Wednesday in Rathdrum, no one was wearing a mask.

That included three young women behind the counter and several customers, among them a woman wearing a badge and uniform from an assisted-living facility.

After being reminded that the Panhandle Health District had recently reinstated its mask mandate, a waitress shrugged.

“You don’t really have to wear one,” she said. “If you don’t feel comfortable, you can just take it off.”

Most folks have done just that in Rathdrum, where perhaps 20% were wearing face coverings in stores, restaurants and even the local high school last week.

Across the street, hundreds of middle school students – almost none masked – were at recess.

It’s called freedom, but purchased with soaring COVID-19 infection rates in schools, overburdened hospitals and one great unknown: How many viruses are hitchhiking from carefree Rathdrum aboard vehicles bound every day for Coeur d’Alene and Spokane?

No one will ever know, but tensions between Idaho and Washington were already high when the Panhandle Health District rescinded its mask mandate on Oct. 23.

“That’s just irresponsible,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said at the time. “I don’t know what else to say about it. We hope Idaho, over time, will be more aggressive and responsible, frankly, to reduce the burden on the Spokane medical system.”

“That’s a hope,” he said.

While North Idaho hospitals such as Kootenai Health are near-capacity, Spokane’s hospitals are hovering around 60 to 65% for COVID-19 patients and accepting out-of-state COVID patients while canceling some elective surgeries for local residents.

But for the 7,000 residents of Rathdrum it’s business as usual, allowed by a law enforcement policy that made the new mask mandate as toothless as the first one.

“We believe in education over enforcement,” a Rathdrum Police Department officer said Wednesday.

The learning curve has been steep, though visual aids may help; compliance appears proportional to the size and messages on signage outside each business.

At the Bi-Mart on state Highway 41, compliance was close to 90%, thanks to a 4-foot-tall sign outside that read: “Face Coverings, Face Shields, Masks are Required.”

Inside, a clerk warmly invited customers “to wear your masks.” Even so, a dozen folks shopped unmasked.

In contrast, at Super 1 Foods on state Highway 53, a tiny black-and-white sign urged customers to “please wear a face mask.” Perhaps 1 in 5 did.

In the parking lot outside, a man summed up why he wasn’t wearing a face covering: “If I get the virus, so what.”

Real-life lessons

That mix of defiance and fatalism has spread to the Lakeland Joint School District, home of the most wide-open school model of any major district in the Inland Northwest.

Since the school year began, Lakeland has embraced full in-person instruction with masks “recommended when appropriate social distancing cannot be maintained.”

In other words, they are optional. Empowered with that choice and following the town example, most students decline to put one on.

The Lakeland Joint School District, enrollment 4,300, has reported 149 positive COVID-19 tests among students and staff since Aug. 31. Most have occurred in the past four weeks.

In comparison, nearby Central Valley (enrollment 14,600) has reported 122 cases since mid-September and Spokane Public Schools (31,000) 103 since Oct. 5.

Both of those districts began the year with distance learning and have moved cautiously toward in-person instruction, with masks required for students and staff. Neither has allowed students above the fourth grade to return.

A Rathdrum student or staffer is four times more likely to contract COVID than their counterparts at Central Valley and eight times more than Spokane.

Lakeland’s numbers are only slightly higher than in neighboring Coeur d’Alene (335 cases out of 11,500 students), which has operated on a hybrid model with masks required.

It’s unclear how many people have been exposed through close contact. The district has three nurses for 4,300 students. And by order of the board, quarantine numbers are not released to the public.

Bringing children back to schools has received support from many education experts.

“For younger kids, the social-emotional relationships at school are so important, because it’s the first time kids are presenting themselves to the world independently, without mom and dad by their side,” said Michael Rich from the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital. “They are figuring out who they are, how to behave, who they like, who they don’t like, who doesn’t like them. All of that important growth is a part of social skills 101 that happens in school.”

However, health experts are almost unanimous on the importance of masks.

“Masks are the most essential of all, especially because social distancing, quite frankly, is a challenge in most schools,” said Dr. Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

Are the risks worth it? Absolutely, according to many in Rathdrum.

“Our district has done exceptionally well,” Superintendent Becky Meyer said last week. “We have been able to keep our students in school five days each week, which we feel is extremely important, both academically and social-emotionally.”

At Better Kiefer Elementary School west of Rathdrum, parent Megan Manuel was waiting in her minivan for her first-grader.

“She needs to be in school,” Manuel said. “And yes, I think she’s safe.”

But at Lakeland High, some of the students weren’t so sure. They also follow the rising numbers on the district’s COVID dashboard.

As the school day ended Wednesday, upperclassmen revved their pickups through the parking lot while freshmen and sophomores faced an icy wind on their way home.

Most teens are grateful to be in class with their friends and not stuck at home on a laptop like most students in Inland Northwest. Yet there’s a gnawing sense of unease about this trade-off.

“I feel kind of safe, but we don’t really social distance as well as other schools,” freshman Joseph Duran said. “Masks are recommended, but the only time I do wear them is in my computer apps class, where we are really close together, or in the cafeteria when I’m not eating.”

Classmate Samuel West said he wears a mask only “when I’m in a huge group,” yet felt safe in classrooms “mostly because the desks in class are spread out.”

However, sophomore Samantha Hansen was conflicted and appeared to believe the mask was protecting her from others, and not the other way around.

Hansen said she doesn’t feel safe without a mask, yet wears one only “sometimes, in the crowded hallways.”

“Only a few students wear masks,” Hansen said.

Board sets tone

Like every district, Lakeland has faced important decisions before the new school year.

Most of those decisions have been driven by parental demand for in-person lessons; indeed, at every fork in the road, each spike in the COVID cases, the board chose the path of least resistance from parents.

During a pivotal school board meeting July 28, local teachers’ union president Jason Bradbury urged the board to begin the year in a hybrid model, alternating in-person and remote learning, with masks required.

“There’s a lot of anxiety out there and rightly so,” Bradbury said.

Then Meyer shared the results of a survey showing 46.6% of Lakeland parents said they didn’t want their children to wear masks.

“I feel that leans itself toward parents wanting to have some say in what the students are doing in the classroom,” Meyer said.

Board members against masking took it from there, putting teachers and parents in opposite camps.

According to board member Michelle Thompson, the absence of a “harsh, totalitarian” mandate from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention meant that school districts were not obligated to make students wear masks.

“I don’t see that we have the authority to make children wear masks,” Thompson said. “We don’t have that authority at all.”

At that point, board member Ramona Grissom expressed fears that children who have been told they couldn’t wear masks for medical or other reasons could be “branded with a scarlet letter” and bullied.

“We certainly don’t want them to be ostracized,” board member Rob Irons agreed.

At that point, Irons suggested the language on masks be changed from “expected” to “strongly recommended.”

Thompson balked.

“How about just ‘recommended?’ ” she said. “Because if we’re strongly recommending something, it means that we are leaning more toward expected.”

That’s where the policy has stood ever since: Facial coverings are recommended when appropriate social distancing cannot be maintained.

“Parent feedback we have received shows overwhelming support for the board’s approach,” Meyer said.

Four weeks later, on Aug. 25, the board voted to join neighboring Coeur d’Alene and Post Falls and bring students into buildings two days a week under the moderate, or Orange, category.

That would mitigate the effect of the decision on masks, teachers said.

“The overall fear is safety,” Bradbury said. “We would feel safer in the classroom in the Orange model.”

Two days later, the Panhandle Health District lowered its COVID-19 risk level from Orange to Yellow.

Hours later, the board seized the opportunity and scheduled a special meeting the next day. It approved a change to Yellow, where it has remained despite surging cases in the county.

“Maintaining consistent, in-person schooling has also helped support our parents and community throughout the pandemic,” Meyer said.

Staying the course

Two weeks into the school year, Lakeland faced its first major test.

On Sept. 24, Meyer told directors the district had 10 cases of COVID-19 since Aug. 31.

Two days later, in a letter sent to staff, Lakeland High School Principal Trent Derrick acknowledged that contract tracing results had forced the cancellation of the Battle of the Prairie, the school’s annual football game against Post Falls.

Four weeks later, in a special meeting on the morning of Oct. 23, board members confronted the news that the Panhandle Health District had moved to the Red, or highest category.

They heard from Meyer, who reported another 29 positive tests in the previous four weeks, and from a district staffer who reported that the pool of substitute teachers is “dire.”

Meyer added a recent survey of teachers and staff h showed 52% preferred the status quo. Students were split 50-50.

Parents also weighed in, with hundreds of emails following the health district’s move to Red.

According to Meyer, “roughly 90 to 95% were in favor of staying in Yellow and having our kids keep going every day.”

They also heard from board member Irons, who broke down as he recalled a family member who recently died from COVID-19. Irons also lamented he can’t see his grandmother for fear of making her sick.

Still dabbing his eyes, Irons went on to say “everybody has the responsibility to do the right thing.”

Shifting his focus to the schools, Irons said, “Let’s give people the opportunity to make the right decisions for themselves.”

That sentiment carried the day; the board voted 5-0 to maintain operations in the same Yellow, or minimal, risk level.

“Actually I’d like to move to Green (which carries no restrictions), though that’s probably unrealistic,” board member Debbie Major said.

Grissom set the tone for the meeting, claiming the district is doing a “great job” in handling the situation.

“I watch the numbers,” Irons said. “As long as they are manageable, I really feel like school is probably the safest place they can be.”

Since then, the district has seen 110 additional cases, or roughly 17 a week.

Three months into the school year, teachers are concerned. Bradbury has continued to survey the district’s teachers, 70% of whom want the district to mandate masks.

“Ultimately, I feel that our teachers/staff want to be here every day and know that it’s the best way for our students to learn,” Bradbury said. “Obviously though, the rise in COVID cases both in and around our school district doesn’t help in the confidence of coming to work each day.”

Another problem, Bradbury said, is it has been difficult to hire replacement or fill-in custodial staff. Because of that, staff have been asked to do the cleaning and disinfecting themselves when custodians are out.

“We’ve even had some principals staying way after hours to help out with the cleaning and disinfecting,” Bradbury said. “These get to be very long and stressful days, and I worry about the well being of our staff, both physically and emotionally.”

Younger students also are worried. As Lakeland Middle School let out Wednesday afternoon, eighth-grader William Neils walked, fully masked past the high school. Neils explained his father is in charge of the Hauser Fire District.

“I’m just trying not to give my dad COVID, because if he gets it, then it affects the whole fire district,” he said.

As far as the rest of the school, “only a few of us wear them,” Neils said. “It’s just a fact of life here.”

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