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Boise School District will allow older students to return to in-person learning next week

The plan to allow 7th- through 12th-graders to return to classrooms comes despite Central District Health moving Ada County schools back into the "red" category.

BOISE, Idaho — Boise School District members doubled down Thursday on the decision to continue allowing students to return to in-person learning on a hybrid basis, despite Central District Health moving Ada County schools back into the "red" category for coronavirus infection risk. 

At the board meeting, conducted over Zoom, Deputy Superintendent Lisa Roberts stressed that the decision to continue with the school's reopening plan came after consultation with doctors and health officials. 

Despite a rise in cases, there does not appear to be community spread within the schools, she said. 

Between Oct. 6 and Thursday, the Boise School District recorded 15 new COVID-19 infections, but contract tracing shows those infections happened outside of school, Roberts said, such as a child testing positive after their parent does, or a teacher in the district being infected after his or her spouse catches the virus. 

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

"We do have lots of folks who are having to quarantine because they've been exposed to a positive case. The great news though is that when they are quarantining, they're not coming back as positive," she said. "That bodes well to our response, to how we're handling positive cases."

Under the hybrid model, students in kindergarten through sixth-grade are attending classes in-person two days a week, with three days of distance learning online. Students have been split up into two groups by alphabet, essentially halving the number of students physically in a classroom at one time. 

Older students - those in seventh through 12th grade - are currently going to school entirely online, but are scheduled to return to class two days a week under the same model starting Monday, Oct. 19.

RELATED: Central District Health moves Ada County schools into red category

Roberts said the online-only option has been taking a toll on students. Parents and teachers alike have reached out to the district about students whose grades are falling dramatically - even if they have not struggled with schoolwork in the past, she said.

"It is so difficult when these kids are sitting at home alone and their parents are off at work," she said. "They're struggling with their academics. They're struggling with their mental health."

Trustee Nancy Gregory agreed, saying that it would be worth it to allow secondary students to return to classrooms, even if the district had to make the decision to roll back to online-only learning in the future.

"I just think there are some compelling reasons why we take a step, why we proceed forward with our plan, knowing that we are going to watch that data and pivot if we need to and take the counsel of our medical experts and CDH to guide us," she said.

School board members say they are well-prepared to ramp up restrictions if community spread is discovered within the district or if cases spike. If multiple cases of community spread are found within one school in the Boise School District, that school will move back to virtual learning for at least two weeks, with teachers having the option to work from home.

RELATED: After contentious meeting, West Ada School Board turns to a new plan for teaching in red category

Although the board had originally aimed at having all students back to five-day-a-week in-person instruction by Nov. 9, the school district now says the hybrid model of two days in-person, three days virtual will continue until at least the end of the semester.

Trustee Beth Oppenheimer said the community plays a major role in keeping infections down, and stressed that responses to the pandemic will vary from one district to another.

"We're working with the information that we have within our district," she said. "And it's hard, it's hard when we're swimming upstream in a community that we can't control what is happening outside of our schools."

Idaho Gov. Brad Little urged all Idahoans to wear a mask and protect their neighbors during a Thursday press conference in which he announced that the state will remain in Stage 4 of the reopening plan amid a rise in infections. Idaho's 14-day average of new cases reported each day is now at 575.93, the highest since the pandemic began.

RELATED: Watch: Gov. Little announces Idaho will stay in Stage 4 again, emphasizes personal responsibility of wearing a face mask

Ada County, which contains the Boise School District, had recorded 13,197 confirmed cases and 156 deaths from COVID-19 as of Wednesday.

But Roberts said she has confidence that the precautions the district has put into place - like masks, social distancing, and disinfecting - have worked and will continue to work. She noted that her own daughter is a teacher in the Boise School District, and her husband is a principal.

"I would not do this, I can promise you none of us would do this if we truly felt like we were putting our staff members at risk," she said. "We have to be diligent, and we have faith that our teachers can be diligent, and our staff members can."

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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