BOISE (IdahoEdNews.org) — Gov. Brad Little told school leaders Sunday he will not issue a statewide order to close schools in response to the novel coronavirus.
Little made the announcement during an afternoon conference call with local school administrators. Instead of closing schools, Little and Idaho Department of Health and Welfare officials urged local leaders to consult with area public health districts and make decisions locally.
“I encourage you all — all of the people on this call and rest of your partners — to make an informed, science-based decision based on consultation with your local health authorities based on circumstances in your individual areas,” Little said.
If school leaders decide to close schools, Health and Welfare officials said it is much less disruptive to close them for a short period of time. Little and health officials warned school leaders to consider that if they close schools now, the community spread of coronavirus may be worse in a matter of weeks.
“My job, fundamentally, is to keep Idahoans safe and look after their well-being,” Little said. “Prepare for worst-case scenario but we should also deescalate alarmism, and that is critical.”
The call came amid news of five confirmed cases of coronavirus in Idaho: two in Ada County, two in Blaine County and one in Eastern Idaho’s Teton County, according to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.
Immediately after the call, West Ada Superintendent Mary Ann Ranells announced the state’s largest district will remain open on Monday. Ranells said district officials agonized over the decision all weekend.
“This was an extremely hard decision, but agencies at every level of government urged us to continue school next week,” Ranells wrote. “We are continuing school tomorrow.”
Before Little’s conference call, the Coeur d’Alene and Blaine County school districts had already announced plans to close school until the first week of April.
In a news release issued shortly before Little’s conference call Sunday, the Idaho Education Association called for the state to close all schools for a minimum of three weeks.
“Education leaders are uniquely positioned to help ‘flatten the curve’ and stave off a public health crisis,” IEA President Layne McInelly said in a written statement. “Recognizing that school buildings often hold more than 250 people, five days a week, we must close our schools immediately for the health of our communities, students and staff.”
Little said local school leaders have the authority to exclude students who are diagnosed with or are suspected of having a contagious disease. He also said local school leaders may close a school with an order from Health and Welfare or local health authorities.
All of Idaho’s public colleges and universities are moving classes online, beginning Monday.
During the call, Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen urged schools to remain open, citing the latest CDC guidelines.
But recognized school leaders may be facing intense local pressure to close.
“I will tell you upfront the CDC and the Department of Health and Welfare’s bias are that we would prefer schools stay open at this time,” Jeppesen said.
Jeppesen and other health officials urged school officials to consider “all aspects” of a decision to close schools, including the disruption to communities and the ability of healthcare workers to continue to stay on the job instead of caring for children at home while school is closed.
In a note posted to the district’s website Saturday, Boise Superintendent Coby Dennis said he had met with staff and participated in conference calls with other regional superintendents but would wait until Sunday’s call with Little to make an announcement.
“Superintendents across the valley are trying to balance the concerns from parents, guidance from Central District Health and other medical professionals, as well as what is in the best interest of every student and staff member,” Dennis wrote. “Of course, we will respect the rights of parents/guardians to make choices they believe are best for their child.”
The World Health Organization has classified the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, as a global pandemic. More than 156,000 have been diagnosed with the virus as of Sunday morning, including nearly 3,000 confirmed cases in the United States, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Governors in the neighboring states of Utah, Washington and Oregon ordered statewide school closures.
Idaho’s first confirmed case of coronavirus was confirmed late Friday afternoon during a press conference with Little, Ybarra and Health and Welfare officials. Since then four other cases have been confirmed.
During a series of press conferences Friday at the Statehouse, Little and Health and Welfare officials urged the public to remain calm and take several steps to help protect the spread of the virus.
Washing your hands regularly.
Covering coughs and sneezes.
Staying home if you are feeling sick.
Staying away from people who are sick.
More information about the coronavirus is available on the state’s website.
Idaho Education News editor Jennifer Swindell contributed to this report.