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Viewpoint: Superintendent Ybarra discusses back to school plans and safety amid pandemic

As fall approaches, Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra explains what the state is doing to make school buildings as safe as possible to reopen.

BOISE, Idaho — School boards across the state have been releasing their back to school plans.

Several districts in coronavirus hotspots are opting to start the fall semester online-only, and re-evaluate as they go about whether or not to bring teachers and students back into school buildings. Those districts include Boise, Caldwell and Nampa.

Other districts in Idaho will bring kids back to class full-time or with hybrid models that combine remote and in-person learning.

For this week's Viewpoint, Doug Petcash interviewed State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra about the tough decisions being made by school boards and what the state is doing to try to make school buildings as safe as possible to reopen.

Below are some excerpts from that interview.

Doug Petcash: What is the Department of Education's role in the back to school planning?

Sherri Ybarra: Our role is to make sure that districts have everything that they need to support schools and students to achieve. That's our motto as you can see behind me. It's on everything we do. We wholeheartedly believe that. Included in that is PPE, the personal protective equipment for our students and our teachers. We also provide guidance around any federal stimulus money that's coming from the national level. That's the CARES Act. They all have different laws and rules around that's flowing out to the districts. We're supporting online learning and options, as well. We want districts to be able to pivot at a moment's notice should they open in person and then see community spread. We want flexible options for parents and so we are providing training and online options for districts. Nutritious meals have been a priority for us. That's a basic need for kids.

Doug Petcash: What's your greatest fear about this upcoming school year?

Sherri Ybarra: I don't know. I think if there's one good thing that's going to come out of this epidemic it's the fact that we've had the opportunity to really look at online opportunities for our kids. I want to make sure that kids and staff and students are safe, but at the same time, I've been a big, huge supporter of personalized learning, and I think this was a great opportunity to shift to that option for our kids. And I think, again, anything good that's come out of this pandemic is personalized learning for kids and options for parents.

Doug Petcash: Have you been hearing from or about a lot of teachers who may not come back because they're afraid of getting sick with the virus, as Idaho has already been facing a teacher shortage?

Sherri Ybarra: So, I did have the opportunity to participate in the Idaho School Administrators conference last week, and that was actually a topic of concern that we brought up. There are some teachers that are at risk, but districts are doing a good job of checking in with those teachers and being flexible and providing options for them. That's why we really wanted that push to be able to go online should a district need to pivot, should a teacher need to have that opportunity. We want to keep everyone safe.

Doug Petcash: Let's take a look at some of the things the state is doing with the $85 million in CARES Act funding, the federal coronavirus relief funding,to try to make reopening schools as safe as possible. The state is directing $10 million dollars to buy additional masks, gloves, sanitizer and plexiglass for schools. How are those supplies being distributed and how is the effort going?

Sherri Ybarra: So, we have had the pleasure of working with the Office of Emergency Management, as well, to help get some of that PPE out to districts. I, again, last week had a great opportunity also to be at the Idaho Association of School Administrators conference. We passed out thermometers and masks there. Working with the Office of Emergency Management, General Brad Ritchey (IOEM Director) there has been great. He helped us get thousands of gallons, a huge donation of hand sanitizer. We have picked some locations around the state in which we've had the opportunity twice to have drop points for hand sanitizer for that. We have plexiglass, gloves, masks, thermometers, all those things available and we have drop points around the state.

You can watch the full interview with Superintendent Ybarra on Viewpoint Sunday morning at 6:30 on KTVB. The program also airs several times throughout the day on 24/7.

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