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Boise School District readies for move to 'red' category, will continue in-person learning

District officials say the hybrid model - with two days of in-person instruction and three days of virtual learning - will continue through the end of the semester.

BOISE, Idaho — The Boise School District will continue moving forward with its phased plan to bring students back to the classroom in person, even as health officials say Ada County will likely move into the "red" category of coronavirus infection rates.

Previously, Central District Health had recommended that schools opt for remote learning over in-person instruction while in the "red" or Category 3 level.

But CDH officials said Friday morning during the Boise School District's board meeting that they support Boise schools continuing to allow students back into the classroom.

CDH Program Manager Gina Pannell said that teachers and staff in the Boise School District have done "an incredible job" so far keeping kids distanced and enforcing mask-wearing and other safety protocols.

RELATED: How Boise School District is keeping students socially distant

"We're not seeing this school district contribute to transmission in the community, contribute to spread, and that is a huge indicator for us that things are going the way they should be," Pannel told the board.

Pannel acknowledged that assessment could change, and encouraged school leaders to monitor the situation closely and continue to work with the health district for recommendations, but underscored that officials do not oppose the plan to continue bringing older students back to school.

"Our main goal in all of this is to reduce the spread and slow the spread, and if schools are not contributing to that, then there is not an indication that anything needs to be done differently at this point in time," she said.

Boise School District's phased reopening plan began on Sept. 22 with the district's youngest students, kindergartners through second-graders, returning for in-person learning first. Phase Two, which brought back third- through sixth-graders, started on Tuesday.

RELATED: Central District Health considers possible school rollback as coronavirus cases climb

Boise School District Superintendent Lisa Roberts said the district will proceed with Phase Three, which affects seventh- through twelfth-graders, on Oct. 19.

The district's hybrid model means that students are going to school in-person two days a week, with three days of virtual learning at home. Classes have been split into two groups, with alternating days of in-class instruction, to help keep class sizes smaller.

Although the district had originally aimed to have all students back in classrooms five-days-a-week by Nov. 9, Roberts said the plan is now to continue the hybrid learning model through the end of the semester.

District enrollment has dropped by 1,505 students from the last school year, Roberts said, and class sizes are capped at 25 students - meaning children are attending school with a dozen or fewer classmates at a time, thanks to the hybrid learning split.

RELATED: Boise School District set to begin phased in-person learning Tuesday

She stressed that the district is working closely with doctors and health officials, and is agile enough to change its approach quickly if cases spike.

"We can close on a dime: That's pretty much what we did in the spring, and we can do that again if we need to," Roberts said.

Superintendent Coby Dennis agreed, but vowed to give parents "as much notice as physically possible" before making a shift back to online-only learning.

Dennis also said that the district will continue to allow sports and athletic programs to move forward, even if Ada County goes into the "red" category as expected. So far, there have been only about five positive COVID-19 cases in the district's sports programs in the last five weeks, with no community spread from those cases, he said.

District-wide, Boise schools had 15 positive cases between Aug. 17 and Sept. 21, nine between Sept. 22 and Oct. 5, and two cases since Oct. 6 - both adults who were infected before students returned to their schools, officials say.

"We need to celebrate the fact that our protocols are working," Dennis said.

RELATED: 'I think it’s going to get worse:' Coronavirus increases substitute teacher shortages across Idaho

Trustee Beth Oppenheimer praised school staff and administrators for their hard work to keep the numbers down, but warned that the school district could not be fully responsible for protecting students from the coronavirus.

Parents and other members of the community need to do their part as well by wearing masks and practicing social distancing if they want to see their children continue to have in-person learning, she said.

"The Boise School District can not fix the community spread outside of our doors," Oppenheimer said.

RELATED: Interactive map and timelines tracking coronavirus numbers and trends in Idaho

Dennis said that the goal for the district is to avoid schools having to be shut down again. The district will continue to monitor the number of infections daily, and will remain in communication with Central District Health as the phased return to school plan progress, he said.

"All of us took a leap of faith at the beginning of this that what we were planning was going to work, and it seems to be working," Dennis said.

At KTVB, we’re focusing our news coverage on the facts and not the fear around the virus. To see our full coverage, visit our coronavirus section, here: www.ktvb.com/coronavirus.

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