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Payette School District to open in 'green' category despite guidance from health district

Trustee Andy Kirkendall told KTVB that the school board feels it's important to get kids back in front of their teachers.

PAYETTE, Idaho — The Payette School District will be returning all students to classrooms starting on Monday, August 24.

The school board voted on Friday to open the district in the 'green' category. The board felt it was important to get kids back in front of their teachers to start the school year.

However, the decision comes as Southwest District Health has Payette County in the 'red' category.

It’s important to point out that the state’s back to school framework differs from the guidance provided by Southwest District Health. The state has three different categories for schools to choose: green, yellow, and red. Green indicates there is little to no community spread of the coronavirus.

SWDH, meanwhile, uses a different tool for measuring the risk and categorizes it based on four colors: gray, yellow, orange, and red. ‘Red’ in this case indicates there is substantial community transmission of COVID-19 and there is a risk to the community.

Lori Steiniker, an 8th grade teacher at McCain Middle school, wanted the school board to vote to open in the ‘yellow’ category.

“I want to see my students; I want to meet them, but I don't want us all crammed into rooms and being sick right off the bat, so I would've preferred a yellow option,” she said.

She told KTVB she watched the board meeting on Friday evening and was angry at the decision.

“I honestly started looking for other jobs because I felt they didn't care about science, stats or the staff,” she said. “I’m now of the belief they do believe they’re doing what’s right for students and staff and we will get through this together.”

Andy Kirkendall is one of the board members who voted to open up in the ‘green.’

“We’re right sort of in that cusp between yellow and the green,” he said. “As we went through the plan we laid out as a school board from our last previous meeting and really started to look at some of those details when it comes from the green to the yellow, we just weren’t seeing those signs we should open up in yellow.”

Kirkendall did say that the district will need to look at the status on a weekly basis or on an as-needed basis and be able to switch to one category to the other swiftly if necessary.

“We have to really focus on what the data tells us now instead of what it can be,” he said. “So, looking at that we had to revert back to the green status.”

Looking at Southwest District Health's risk alert level tool, the health district has Payette County in the red.  A spokesperson for the district told KTVB one reason is because only 60% of confirmed cases in Payette county know where they were exposed. This is a sign that points to community spread, according to the district.

As of Monday, the seven-day rolling average for the county is at 50 cases. The county has also had 26 people hospitalized and three deaths. District-wide, COVID-19 patients were occupying a third of ICU beds and more than 6.5% of inpatient beds. The positivity rate for the county is 12.63% according to Southwest District Health.

Another factor that places a county in the ‘red’ level is the number of daily new cases per 10,000 people. The health district’s risk alert level tool indicates that more than five will place a county in the red. Payette County’s is currently 3.43. This would place it in the ‘orange’ category.

“I think we were at 3.7 in Payette city with our zip code on that seven-day rolling factor which still doesn’t meet the five of the red category,” Superintendent Robin Gilbert said.

A big deciding factor for the board to open in ‘green’ is to get kids back in front of their teachers instead of learning in a virtual format.

“To have that connection with our professionals inside of our schools is a big deal and a great way,” Kirkendall said. “It’s the way it needs to be started with the education system.”

Kirkendall also told KTVB the district sent out a survey to parents back in July. 60% of parents said they would send their students back to school if it were open. 27% said they were unsure with only a small percentage left over saying ‘no.’

“We had that in the back of our minds to make sure we have those options out there,” he said.

Nikki Zogg, the director for Southwest District Health, said the decision to open in the ‘green’ is concerning.

“Since mid-June, we've seen quite a few cases coming out of Payette County,” she said. “The reason that's concerning to us is because again we're trying to bring down the amount of disease in that community and bringing people together in close settings without taking measures into consideration how to slow the spread of the disease, that could have consequences of spreading more disease across the community.”

She recommends the district take measures to mitigate the spread of the virus, otherwise, it will be spread in school the way it's being spread in the community.

“I feel pretty confident about that,” she said. “What that means is children being out because either they’re sick or exposed and obviously that would impact teachers which would impact the learning in those schools as well.”

However, Gilbert is confident the district is reviewing the right data in making their decision.

“It’s really about what numbers to be looking at and like I said I jumped on a call with Kim Beckly with SWDH and had gone through those even Friday afternoon with her prior to the meeting on which numbers to look at and which are best to inform my board with, so it’s not the numbers are wrong," she said. "It's really data points and how to use those data points accurately."

School starts on Monday, August 24. Steiniker told KTVB that more than 300 kids will line the halls and fill the classrooms - something that continues to be a big concern for her, her students, and co-workers.

“One of my fellow teachers, his wife has cancer," she said. "She has no immune system, so she and her daughter are going to have to move and go somewhere else to live. I’m very worried for my fellow co-workers and our students have health concerns too, it’s just not a pretty situation.”

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