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Superintendent explains District 91 board decision

Idaho Falls School Board
Idaho Falls School Board meets at Compass Academy on Sept. 30.
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IDAHO FALLS, Idaho (KIFI/KIDK) - Idaho Falls, Skyline and Compass Academy schools will move to the Stage 3/Yellow Phase while other schools in the district will remain in Stage 4/Blue Phase. District 91 superintendent George Boland says these three schools are essentially the district hotspots.

Margaret Wimborne, PIO for District 91, says confirmed cases are having the biggest impact in District 91 high schools. Many students have had to self-isolate due to coming in contact with positive-testing students. These quarantine periods are causing absentee rates to be increasingly high within our local high schools. The goal of the school board is to keep students in school and the new Phase 3/Yellow Stage plans will hopefully assist with these endeavors.

Under the change, students at Skyline and Idaho Falls High Schools and Compass with last names beginning with A to K will attend class on Mondays and Wednesdays and do online learning on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

Students with last names beginning with L to Z will attend class on Tuesdays and Thursdays and do online learning Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

The new schedule is expected to improve social distancing in hallways, cafeterias and common areas. It should also give teachers an opportunity to provide better instruction and student support, because there will be a more consistent schedule and less absenteeism.

The board said it would continue to re-evaluate its plan.  

You can find more information about the plan here.

Idaho’s test-positivity rate, per 100,000, is 6.7%. The eastern Idaho rate is 16%. 

Idaho Falls Community Hospital (IFCH) and Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center (EIRMC) both report an uptick in the severity of cases. While running close to intensive care capacity, they say the significant impact of COVID-19 hospitalizations is on hospital staff. 

A health board meeting on Thursday indicated the stress level of the hospitals increasing and the school district is hoping to help flatten the curve to elevate some of this stress on local healthcare facilities.

George Boland, Superintendent for District 91, calls this move to the yellow phase “proactive as opposed to reactive” in that the school board is hoping to take action before active cases and quarantines force any of the schools to shut down.

Boland says absenteeism is one of the main reasons why the school board has decided to move these high schools into the yellow phase. 

“25 to 35 percent absenteeism, whereas typically, we’re around six to eight percent...only about one third of that is because of school directed quarantines of students,” Boland said.

In District 91, 126 students are currently self-isolating under parental guidance, and 290 and have been ordered to self-quarantine by the school board. That means 416 students district-wide are currently absent from school. 159 students are absent at Idaho Falls High School, 20 from Skyline, and 10 from Compass Academy.

“We have so many kids gone, we’re almost in a de facto hybrid already,” Boland said.

17 elementary school students, 5 middle school students, and 25 high school students have tested positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of the school year. Only the high schools will be moving to the yellow phase because they have shown the greatest number of active cases so far.

“It’s not really an issue of active cases, it’s an issue of flattening that curve and mitigating the risk, not just within our schools but in the broader community,” Boland said.

The intent of transitioning into a hybrid school schedule is to space students out in an effort to minimize the risk of spreading the virus to students and staff. This should also reduce the current required quarantining.

“The one thing that we’re not able to do in our high schools is the distancing, simply because of the number of students. We don’t have the space within the classrooms for them to spread out the way that they would need to,” Boland said. “So what this does is it gives the ability to do that, which minimizes exposure to students and staff. It should, in a short period of time, almost eliminate the need for quarantine based upon exposure at school.”

Boland says another element of the absenteeism in District 91’s high schools may be due to a feeling of concerned about contracting the virus. Many students and staff may be staying home out of safety precautions.

“The unknown is, will we see absenteeism drop because people feel more secure, students feel more secure, staff feels more secure because the distancing that needs to happen can happen,” Boland says.

Some teachers are high-risk or have family members who are at high-risk of developing serious complications from contracting the coronavirus. 

 “One of the concerns that we have is that if we have a significant number of staff who either need to quarantine or become ill, we may have to close a school because we don’t have sufficient staff,” Boland said.

Boland mentioned some students were not in school during their infectious period, some students had minimal if any contact with others at school, and in rare cases, recommended quarantine periods were over before the case was confirmed.

The superintendent also mentioned the biggest factors in reducing the number of students in isolation include students staying home when they are sick and not returning to school while they are still waiting for test results.

He says the numbers are a testament to the work of teachers and principals who are implementing protocols to enforce social distancing as much as possible and separating students into groups.

“Kids are pretty resilient and I think that if adults communicate to kids that are in school that this is a part of learning as well, and sometimes life lessons are challenging lessons. But this is a part of learning how to deal with and cope with a less than ideal situation,” Boland said.

Boland says the custodians are using equipment to speed up the process of sanitizing surfaces, though the school’s main concern is the risk of transmission through droplets.

Doug Swanson, owner of Bill’s Bike & Run in Idaho Falls, is participating in a recall campaign against the board in response to their decision to move to a hybrid schedule starting October 12.

Swanson said in a Facebook post, “As of 9/25. 10000 students in the district 22 confirmed cases (99.997 recovery rate). So with 318 students quarantined we are talking about 296 healthy kids missing school, activities and so much more. Even with no public comment allowed at this meeting our support shows how much we care about those 296 students and what the future holds for them.  PLEASE TAKE TIME TO HELP THEM!”

Swanson said a group is being organized to get the recall started.

Superintendent George Boland said he would have to see what the campaign lists as their reason to remove the board members before making comment on the issue.

Article Topic Follows: Coronavirus Coverage

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Chelsea Briar

Chelsea is a reporter and producer for Local News 8 and KIDK Eyewitness News 3.


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