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Idaho to remain in Stage 4; Gov. Little calls on schools to reopen in the fall

"It is imperative that students return to their classrooms and interact directly with their teachers and classmates at the end of summer," the governor said.

BOISE, Idaho — Idaho Gov. Brad Little said Thursday that he expects the state's K-12 schools to reopen for in-person learning in the fall, even as the state failed to meet benchmarks to move out of the final reopening stage amid soaring COVID-19 cases.

Remote or online learning is not enough to guarantee Idaho kids a good education, the governor said.

"Despite the incredible advances in digital learning, you can never replace the value and impact of in-person interaction with a professional and dedicated teacher," Little said. "The expectation is that school will not be closed for an extended period of time."

Even before the pandemic struck, too many schoolchildren were dealing with "a significant achievement gap" in everything from literacy to college-readiness, the governor said, an issue only exacerbated by the spread of coronavirus and the closure of schools across the state.

"It is imperative that students return to their classrooms and interact directly with their teachers and classmates at the end of summer," he said. "But we also must make sure this can happen safely." 

The governor's announcement came one day after President Donald Trump said in a tweet that he was considering cutting off federal funds to schools that did not reopen. Idaho received more than $264 million in federal education dollars last school year.

Little also announced that Idaho will remain in Stage 4 for at least two more weeks as coronavirus infections continue to climb. 

RELATED: Central District Health reinstates Stage 3 order for Ada County, will consider mask mandate

State Epidemiologist Dr. Christine Hahn said the state has seen a rise in cases as well as percent positivity - the share of people who are tested for coronavirus and found to be positive.

Idaho's percent positivity rate, which needed to be at 5 percent or below to move forward out of Stage 4 restrictions, measured at 10.8% over the last two weeks, she said. 

Hahn added that 15,000 Idahoans were tested last week and 18,000 the week before that. Cases have not overwhelmed the hospital system however, Hahn said, noting that there are still about 100 ICU beds and 400 ventilators left available. But Idaho is seeing a rise in hospitalizations "almost entirely in the Treasure Valley" as well as people turning up at emergency rooms with COVID-like symptoms, she said.

Little said that safety must be a top priority as students return to classrooms. 

"We cannot succeed in rebounding our economy and send children safely back to school if we do not act individually and collectively to slow the spread of coronavirus in our communities," he said.

The governor added that his committees have put together a framework for creating return-to-school plans, but said decisions on school operations will be made at the local level, with each district and charter school determining how to proceed. At Idaho's higher education institutions, those choices will be left up to university and college presidents.

RELATED: Reopening Idaho schools: How to keep children safe during a pandemic?

Little acknowledged that districts face a "balancing act" between providing education and making sure students and staff stay healthy. 

"We do know that the '20-'21 school year will not look the same as in previous years," he said. 

Some school districts will need to take a "blended learning" approach of relying on technology in addition to traditional instruction, Little said, adding that the state is allocating $30 million towards bridging the digital divide.

Some districts, including the Boise School District, have created an online-only program for families who opt not to send their children back to the classroom in the fall. The governor said he will not "second-guess" decisions made by local school boards or health districts, but encouraged administrators to look over the framework approved by the state board as they move toward the beginning of the new school year. 

Idaho State Board of Education President Debbie Critchfield added that nothing in the document was mandatory and that the board had already been encouraging districts and charter schools to begin mapping out what a return would look like long before the release of the framework. 

RELATED: 3 million coronavirus cases now confirmed in US

"We do not know what things will look like a few weeks or a few months from now," she said. "But we do believe this is a solid foundation whereby local boards and superintendents getting together with their local community expectations can outline their own plans, communicate them to their patrons, families, students on how they expect to one, educate their child and two, protect their safety,"

Support from families will be vital, she said. Among the recommendations is for parents to take their child's temperature each morning before school, and keep them home if they have a fever.

Critchfield said she understood Idahoans' anxiety about what the future will bring, but argued the education system is ready to rise to the challenge. 

"We are confident in the resiliency of our educators here in Idaho and their dedication in all of our commitment to serving students, and we're very optimistic and hopeful for the coming school year," she said.