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News >  Idaho

Boise School District makes masks optional. What does that mean for students, teachers?

UPDATED: Tue., July 13, 2021

By Becca Savranksy Idaho Statesman

Students and staff in the Boise School District won’t have to wear masks in the classroom during the upcoming academic year.

But, the district is still encouraging those who are not vaccinated to continue wearing masks to protect themselves and their community.

The district’s Board of Trustees unanimously approved a COVID-19 response plan for the 2021-22 school year, which was created using input from parents, teachers and health professionals.

Under the plan, the district will focus on other mitigation strategies it had been using, such as hand-washing, disinfecting surfaces and protocols for when people get sick. The district will also continue to update its ventilation systems and train staff, students and parents on safety practices.

The approval of the plan comes just days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidelines on COVID-19 prevention in K-12 schools. The guidelines recommend people who aren’t fully vaccinated continue to wear masks in the classroom.

Area director Brian Walker said the district’s plan to make masks optional aligns with the CDC guidance as it still encourages people who aren’t fully vaccinated to wear masks.

“When you’re requiring it, we’re making that decision for our public,” Walker said. “When we change to language of recommended, encouraged, optional, we’re putting that back in the hands of the family and it’s on families to interpret that.”

During the meeting, trustee Beth Oppenheimer asked specifically about younger students, who don’t yet have the option to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Vaccines are only approved for children 12 and older.

“I would imagine that there are some parents that are very concerned about that,” Oppenheimer said. “With the encouragement of masks … What choices do parents have at this point, knowing that masks will be optional for all children?”

Children will still have the option to attend school online, and can also work with their school’s principal and administration to figure out the best plan for them on a building level, Walker said.

Students and staff will also still be required to wear masks in health offices.

During the year, the district will continue to monitor guidance from national and local health professionals, along with current district data.

“The plan, while comprehensive, is neither exhaustive nor static,” according to plan documentation.

Walker said a vast majority of the district’s staff is vaccinated, but the district isn’t requiring staff to submit information on whether they are vaccinated.

To compile its pandemic plan, the Boise School District recently sent out a survey to families and staff asking what kinds of mitigation strategies they want to be used during the upcoming year. More than 5,000 parents or guardians filled out the survey, according to the district.

Of those who answered, about three-quarters of respondents said hand sanitizing and hand-washing were important to safely reopen schools, and about 61% said the same about disinfecting surfaces. Far fewer – less than 30% – said masks were a strategy they wanted the district to use to reopen schools in the fall. A similar percentage said the same about physical distancing and gathering limits.

However, about 60% of respondents did say that the district should monitor COVID-19 case rates and that certain measures – such as mask wearing – should be “revisited” throughout the school year.

Among the about 1,500 staff members who filled out the survey, the results were similar. Nearly 80% supported hand washing and 64.3% supported disinfecting surfaces. But only about one-quarter – 26.6% – said mask wearing was an important strategy for the district to safely reopen.

Three-quarters of the staff respondents said they think COVID-19 cases should be monitored and that the mitigation strategies should be looked at again throughout the next academic year.

Throughout this past year, the Boise School District required masks for students and staff when inside. According to data from the district, there were about 325 positive COVID-19 cases during the second semester of school – from January through June – among all schools in the district. That data includes cases “reported to the Boise School District Administration or to school principals” when “school was in session or when they were directly involved with a District program or activity.”

The decision to make masks optional for the upcoming school year follows a similar action by the West Ada School District. The West Ada Board of Trustees last month voted unanimously to remove the mask requirement from its student handbook for the 2021-22 school year.

Char Jackson, chief communication officer for the West Ada School District, said the CDC guidelines “will not change the existing plan or the recent Board action in June.” Under West Ada’s plan, the superintendent does have the authority to “make operational decisions to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” which includes putting into place a mask mandate.“The District utilizes a comprehensive pandemic plan that includes multiple layers of infection prevention strategies and the monitoring and evaluation of data for making operational decisions and to keep schools safe,” Jackson wrote in an email.

According to the most recent data from the state, only about 18% of children 12-15 and 28% of children 16-17 have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

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