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Lakeland School District opts to keep students in school with masks optional as COVID-19 cases rise

UPDATED: Fri., Oct. 23, 2020

Lakeland High School in Rathdrum is photographed on Thursday, August 20, 2020.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
Lakeland High School in Rathdrum is photographed on Thursday, August 20, 2020. (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

A lot of numbers were tossed around during Friday morning’s special meeting of the Lakeland Joint School District board.

As they considered how to respond to a surge in coronavirus infection in Kootenai County, trustees heard that 39 of their students and staff have been infected this year.

They also learned that more than 90% of parents want their kids to stay in school buildings.

The board eventually decided to do just that. But midway through the meeting, those numbers became irrelevant.

That’s when board member Rob Irons broke down as he recalled a family member who recently died from COVID-19.

Irons also lamented that he can’t see his grandmother for fear of making her sick.

“It’s not anyone’s fault,” Irons said. “But I made the decision not to see her, because I don’t want to be responsible.”

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

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

At Lakeland, that has meant giving families the choice on whether to send their kids to school buildings or keep them home.

“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.”

In the end, that sentiment carried the day; the board voted 5-0 to maintain operations in the same Yellow, or minimal, risk level it has adhered to since classes opened Sept. 8.

That means it will continue to operate with full in-person learning and masks recommended, but not required.

The decision follows the Panhandle Health District’s move on Thursday to shift Kootenai County into the highest-risk Red category for coronavirus transmission.

The Red category is triggered when the rolling seven-day average of new cases tops 30 per 100,000 people. Kootenai County’s is 37.8. Other factors include positive testing rates higher than 20%, hospital capacity at or above 100% and implementation of crisis standards of care.

The board also heard from Superintendent Becky Meyer and district staff that as of Thursday night 19 students and 20 staff members have tested positive since the school year began.

No information was shared on how many people have been quarantined.

However, Meyer also said that emails received since Thursday indicated that roughly “90 to 95%” were in favor of staying in yellow and having our kids keep going every day.”

Meyer added that a survey of teachers and staff held earlier this week showed that a slight majority of 52% preferred the status quo and that students were split roughly 50-50.

At the same time, an off-camera staff member reported the pool of substitute teachers is “dire.”

During a meeting that drew almost 300 viewers on Zoom, board members of the 4,300-student district strongly favored remaining in Yellow.

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

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

“I don’t see any reason to do anything different than what we’ve been doing,” Grissom said. “I don’t think there’s an adult in the district that doesn’t have the interest of the students first.”

After the case numbers were shared, Grissom said she had examined statistics from neighboring districts and said she “didn’t see a difference between our district and those which had taken more serious precautions.”

Grissom didn’t specify which districts she had studied. However, Spokane Public Schools and Central Valley, which began the year with distance learning and have a combined enrollment of 46,000 – more than 10 times that of Lakeland – currently have a combined 17 confirmed cases.

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