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North Idaho College to move to virtual learning for two weeks amid rising COVID-19 cases

UPDATED: Thu., Jan. 20, 2022

North Idaho College freshman Gabi Olscamp walks to class Thursday through the rain in Coeur d’Alene.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
North Idaho College freshman Gabi Olscamp walks to class Thursday through the rain in Coeur d’Alene. (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

Starting Monday, North Idaho College will move temporarily to virtual learning for most classroom instruction amid surging COVID-19 case counts in Kootenai County and increasing staff quarantines.

The college had 60 staff members in quarantine or isolation as of Wednesday, said Interim President Michael Sebaaly. There are 42 students currently in quarantine or isolation, college officials said.

NIC students and staff have reported 131 suspected or confirmed positive cases since last Monday, according to the college.

As a result, Sebaaly announced NIC will move to virtual instruction for at least two weeks for most courses. Students were advised that they would receive instructions from their faculty members no later than Tuesday about any changes.

Activities that need face-to-face instruction will largely continue in person, including labs, athletics, health professions and courses at the Parker Technical Education Center and the Workforce Training Center. Dual credit courses at the high schools will follow school district protocols.

Meanwhile, on-campus events will also be reduced over the next two weeks to 50% capacity, while public campus tours are canceled.

While college officials will revisit the measures next month, in-person learning is thus far scheduled to return Feb. 7.

“We are continuing to adapt and plan to make sure we continue to give our community and students the best learning experiences necessary while also ensuring the safety of all with the tools that the institution has at our disposal,” Sebaaly said.

The Panhandle Health District has confirmed more than 2,100 cases of coronavirus in Kootenai County since the start of the year. Districtwide, health officials reported 264 new cases Wednesday, as well as 11 new deaths.

There were 91 Panhandle residents hospitalized for COVID-19 as of Wednesday, with Kootenai Health treating 87 patients.

“We are not aware of any students who have been hospitalized during this recent surge of COVID cases,” NIC spokeswoman Laura Rumpler said. “Unfortunately, we are aware of employees who have been very ill or recently hospitalized due to fellow employees sharing opportunities to fundraise and offer support to families of their colleagues.”

NIC also temporarily closed its Children’s Center this past weekend due to the number of staff and children out with COVID-19. The closure impacts 51 children.

“We’re hopeful we’ll have enough staffing and a reduction in illness to re-open the Center on Tuesday, Jan. 25th,” Rumpler said.

In the coming weeks, the college will begin staff rotations to have portions of teams working remotely, said Sebaaly, who announced the changes during Wednesday night’s college Board of Trustees meeting.

The board majority in August instituted new policy to give trustees – and not the president – final authority on preventative measures for communicable diseases. It was on that basis that the board, in the same meeting the policy was installed, rescinded former President Rick MacLennan’s mask mandate just days after the mandate took effect.

While trustees Wednesday did not oppose the move to virtual learning, Sebaaly’s decision spurred debate over the policy itself.

“I don’t think what we have is adequate,” Trustee Ken Howard said. “I don’t think it meets the (state) statute. I don’t think we’ve consulted with Panhandle Health, so I have difficulty with the content of it.”

Per Idaho Code 33-2145, a community college’s board of trustees “must adopt a policy for measures and procedures to prevent the spread of contagious or infectious disease.”

“I feel like that’s what this whole past year has been about, is board oversight, and this board is actually doing its job now with the change in election from last year,” Trustee Greg McKenzie said. “I agree with our Legislature who represent the people that these decisions should be reviewable by the board.”

The discussion closed with the understanding that the college administration will continue to look into possible revisions to the policy.

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