School officials keep their distance from polarizing mask mandates

Parents show up at an August 2021 Boise School Board meeting to protest a mask mandate. The district lifted the mandate in March; a proposed health policy for 2022-23 keeps the mask-optional language intact.

In Idaho’s three largest school districts, a new COVID-19 school year will probably look a lot like the old one.

The West Ada, Boise and Nampa school districts will likely pick up where they left off last spring — especially when it comes to masks, which would remain optional. Despite a new and possibly more contagious virus variant, and case numbers that have placed much of Idaho under the feds’ highest COVID-19 risk category, school leaders are staying the course.

Boise’s school health and safety plan isn’t final; trustees are scheduled to vote on it Monday night. But the plan reflects work done in the spring, when district officials took a close look at Boise’s mitigation strategies and lifted a mask mandate, Superintendent Coby Dennis said Wednesday.

“I don’t think anything has really changed,” he said. “Our numbers are higher, but the variant is different.”

School leaders are counting on a variety of COVID-19 mitigation strategies — not just the mask mandates that have polarized patrons and sparked demonstrations. And they’re hoping the new BA.5 variant, while more contagious, will also prove to be less severe.

Unmasked — or at least unmandated

Asked about Nampa’s COVID-19 pandemic protocols, spokeswoman Kathleen Tuck was succinct. “Our board has not revisited our COVID protocols, nor do they have plans to do so.”

Not that this is a board that is bashful about making decisions. Nampa trustees drew national attention in May, when they voted to permanently remove 22 books from libraries, and last month, they rescinded a standards-based grading policy supported by administrators. But trustees’ reluctance to revisit the protocols probably should come as little surprise; newly elected board members Jeff Kirkman, Tracey Pearson and Brook Taylor ran against mask mandates last fall.

But Nampa’s mask-optional policy is very much in the mainstream, even nationally. The data company Burbio tracks mask policies for the nation’s 500 largest school districts, including West Ada and Boise. Only 14 districts still have mask mandates — for all or some of their school populations. (CNN has more coverage on national K-12 mask policies.)

And in Idaho, the shift to mask-optional policies extends to the state’s three universities.

The University of Idaho went mask-optional on March 1, with one wrinkle: Instructors had the option of requiring masks in class for the remainder of that semester. This fall, the mask-optional policy extends to all classrooms.

“We’re asking everybody to do what’s right for them,” university spokeswoman Jodi Walker said.

Schools might not be operating in a COVID aftermath, but they are definitely well into a COVID aftermath.

Mitigation beyond masking

For the record, the Centers for Disease Control still recommends masks in schools in areas of high community risk. That includes 14 of Idaho’s 44 counties, including all of Southwest Idaho and much of the Magic Valley.

But the CDC’s guidelines also include a menu of other mitigation measures. Some, like masking, are also controversial — such as postponing sports, choir and other extracurricular activities in high-risk communities; or emphasizing vaccinations. Other measures are standard pieces in the pandemic playbook: hand hygiene and disinfecting surfaces; improving ventilation systems; and encouraging students and staff to stay home when they’re sick. (The guidelines, last updated in May, could again be reworked within days, CNN reported Wednesday.)

Dr. David Pate supports masking in schools, particularly during times of high virus spread, and says the COVID vaccines are a safe and effective way to prevent serious illness. But Pate — the retired CEO of the St. Luke’s health care system, and a member of Gov. Brad Little’s coronavirus working group — says school officials have become stuck in a divisive “binary” debate over mask mandates. But he says school officials and parents should also pay attention to other strategies, such as ventilation and air treatment.

“There’s lots of things we can do,” Pate said on an Idaho Education News podcast last week. “It doesn’t have to all be masks.”

Boise encourages staff and students to stay home if they’re sick, and that pays dividends, Dennis said. Two years into the pandemic, teachers know how to use Google Classroom to keep symptomatic students on task. And while it’s never easy to find a substitute teacher, Dennis says he’d much rather find a sub for one staffer — as opposed to dealing with an outbreak that keeps half a dozen teachers home.

A more manageable variant?

Since schools closed for the summer, the omicron variant BA.5 has become the predominant strain of COVID-19 in the US

As school officials hope to stay the course on pandemic policies, they are hoping the new variant will be less severe. Dennis points to research that suggests the new strain is less likely to result in hospitalizations. Jerome School District Superintendent Pat Charlton is planning on a less restrictive pandemic policy this fall, partly because he believes staff and students are less susceptible to the new strain. “There’s a lot more immunity than there was before.”

But the science isn’t that clearcut. In some nations, BA.5 appears to be triggering higher hospitalization rates than its predecessors, Pate said. And he said the new variant appears to be more adept at “immune evasion:” infecting people who are vaccinated or who have had COVID-19 before.

While BA.5 also appears more contagious, there’s another wild card. It’s now tougher to track case numbers.

Last week, Idaho logged 3,317 new COVID-19 cases, 199 involving K-12-aged kids. That’s the lowest weekly count since late June. But the CDC warns that the actual case counts could be five to 10 times higher — partly because the “official” number doesn’t include positive results from at-home tests.

West Ada health services supervisor Tracey Garner is comfortable with that tradeoff. She’d rather have people test at home and know whether they’re COVID-positive, and respond accordingly.

‘We all have learned something’

School districts don’t pass COVID-19 policies in a political vacuum. The decisions fall to elected trustees — who have to answer to pandemic-weary voters.

Charlton admits that COVID fatigue is a factor in the process. “(People are) ready to move on.”

But other things have changed since the spring of 2020, Garner said. Heading into their fourth pandemic academic year, schools have more tools to prevent the spread of disease. And even if people are tired of COVID-19, they’re smarter about it.

“We all have learned something, and have gotten better at taking care of ourselves through this,” she said.

School administrators can’t afford to be “cavalier,” Pate said, since kids are not immune from serious COVID-19 complications. But educators and parents shouldn’t panic either. Children with COVID-19 generally fare well, when compared to the elderly, the immunocompromised and the unvaccinated. And children need to be in school.

“It can be done safely,” Pate said. “The common goal should be, let’s keep schools open … and let’s get (children) back on track.”

Kevin Richert writes a weekly analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for his stories every Thursday.

About Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on KIVI 6 On Your Side; “Idaho Reports” on Idaho Public Television; and “Idaho Matters” on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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