Record-breaking COVID-19 numbers in Kootenai County and a strong recommendation from Coeur d’Alene schools weren’t enough to convince many students to don a mask when classes began Tuesday.
At the district’s elementary schools, about 1 in 10 wore a mask, according to a district spokesman. Numbers were lower at the secondary level.
“It’s safe to say most students aren’t wearing masks,” said Scott Maben, director of communications for the district, which welcomed about 10,300 students back to class. Of those, only 162 opted for an online option.
Don Duffy, interim director of the Panhandle Health District, is not aware of any large school districts in the Panhandle implementing mask mandates. The health district is encouraging students, teachers and staff to wear masks.
That means that 98.5% of students, nearly all maskless, were back in class early Wednesday.
Post Falls and Lakeland opened the school year with no mask requirements, the latter with no mention of masks in its operational plan.
The school year began simultaneously with news that the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare has activated crisis standards of care, following a spike in COVID-19 metrics. That means hospitals may ration certain types of care for those most likely to survive.
Over the weekend, Kootenai Health added about a dozen more COVID-19 patients, bringing the total to 108 patients with the virus in the hospital, with 39 patients receiving critical care.
As of Tuesday, Kootenai County had 129 cases per 100,000 residents over the previous two weeks. That number was 16 a year ago, when Coeur d’Alene and other districts weighed the pros and cons of in-person learning and remote models.
Most opted for a hybrid model, then returned to full-time in-person instruction as the pandemic waned. Coeur d’Alene did so with masks required, while they were optional in Post Falls and Lakeland.
But while the rise of the delta variant led to mask mandates in Washington and Oregon opened under a mask mandate, no such mandate exists in Idaho.
Left to decide for themselves, school boards faced strong opposition to requiring students to wear masks. All three school districts declined to require them, though in a recent meeting, Coeur d’Alene reserved the right to do so regardless of whether a mandate exists.
Coeur d’Alene opted to “strongly recommend” masks in newsletters, emails to families and staff communications, Maben said.
No such recommendation appears on the district website, or in its reopening plan for 2021-22.
Instead, it reads like more of a suggestion: “Masks are not required at any Coeur d’Alene School District facility. Masks may be worn if a staff member, student, or visitor chooses to do so.”
It notes that “masks will be made available at schools and district buildings,” and that the American Academy of Pediatrics “recommends that all students older than 2 years and all school staff should wear face masks at school (unless medical or developmental conditions prohibit use).”
The language at Post Falls is even softer. The district’s operational plan for this year includes a headline that refers to the guidelines as “a requirement set forth by the Idaho State Department of Education.”
The plan directs schools to “post information and/or teach proper handwashing, respiratory etiquette, and the correct wearing of masks.”
In the next paragraph, however, it states masks “are optional unless required by Panhandle Health or another local governmental agency (Idaho Governor, Mayor of Post Falls, etc).”
Lakeland, which last year operated fully in-person with masks recommended, makes no reference to masks or other face coverings in its operational plan.
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