Students and staff in the Boise School District will be required to wear masks while indoors when they head back to school this fall.
The district’s Board of Trustees on Tuesday approved an updated reopening plan that mandates masks for everyone indoors, regardless of whether they are vaccinated. Masks will be required outdoors for large gatherings. The new plan was approved during a special board meeting.
“We feel like the masks, at this point in time, with this high transmission, are our absolute best bet to starting the school year, in person, five days a week,” Deputy Superintendent Lisa Roberts said during the meeting.
After the motion passed, several parents in attendance spoke out loudly against the mandate, calling the board members cowards and sheep, and vowing to fight the requirement. The group of parents said the board members were not listening to the people.
The new plan marks a shift from the plan the board approved just last month that made masks optional for everyone. That plan recommended masks for people who were not fully vaccinated, but ultimately left the choice up to individuals and families.
The change comes as coronavirus cases have been rising again in Idaho and public health officials have raised concerns about the more transmissible delta variant spreading across the country. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week updated its guidance to recommend “universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to schools, regardless of vaccination status” and masking for fully vaccinated people indoors in “areas of substantial or high transmission.”
The CDC still recommended a return to “full-time in-person learning,” but with mitigation strategies in place.
Central District Health, which covers Ada County, also issued a statement last week in support of the CDC’s recommendation for schools.
“Universal indoor masking is recommended for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccine status or community transmission,” the Central District Health statement said.
During a press conference Tuesday, Dr. Kathryn Turner, deputy state epidemiologist, said the state had been seeing significant increases in the number of coronavirus cases reported among kids 12 and younger, along with older students ages 13-17.
“We’ve seen increases in all of the age groups, but we’re certainly seeing a relatively larger increase in the younger population,” she said, “and that could very well be due to the circulation of the delta variant.”
Currently, no COVID-19 vaccine has been authorized for kids younger than 12, meaning the virus could spread in schools where the majority of kids are not protected.
The state is convening a back-to-school task force that will issue recommendations in the coming weeks, said Dave Jeppesen, director of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. But decisions like this still will be up to local school districts and boards, he said.
Ahead of the school year, Gov. Brad Little encouraged more people to get vaccinated.
“Simply put, we need more Idahoans to choose to receive the vaccine for kids to have a chance at a normal school year, one that is entirely in person, without outbreaks and quarantines,” Little said at the press conference Tuesday.
The Boise School District will continue to look at a number of factors going forward, including community transmission, spread of the virus in schools, number of students and staff who are quarantined because of exposure, and the availability of vaccines for students younger than 12.
Children 12 to 17 have lower vaccination rates than any other age group in the state, with 22% of students 12-15 and 31% of those 16-17 having received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the Department of Health and Welfare.
During the board meeting Tuesday, trustees said that given the uptick in transmission of the virus and the spread of the delta variant, the new plan requiring masks will help keep students and staff safe, while keeping schools open for in-person learning.
Masks would also help lower the number of students who would have to quarantine if there was an exposure, Roberts said. Quarantine would not be required if a student is exposed to COVID-19 in a school setting when both students are wearing a mask and the student who is a close contact has no symptoms, according to CDH.
“Our biggest fear is to have to go back to remote learning,” Roberts said. “We do not want to do that again.”
Most other school districts in the Treasure Valley over the past few months had approved pandemic plans making masks optional for the fall, regardless of whether people are vaccinated. The mask mandates in districts over the past year had previously faced pushback from some parents.
It’s not yet clear whether other school districts across Idaho plan to follow in the direction of the Boise School District and once again mandate masks for the upcoming year.