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NEW PLYMOUTH - New Plymouth School Board Chair Marc Haws looked for what he called a compelling reason to close his district’s classrooms to nearly 1,000 students this fall.

He scrutinized the community’s latest COVID-19 data. He reviewed a parent survey. And he weighed the risk of the coronavirus against the impact of more lost time in the classroom.

Ultimately, Haws said he didn’t find a compelling reason to keep his schools closed. So he joined in the board’s 4-1 vote to reopen New Plymouth’s classrooms five days a week starting Aug. 24.

The decision added New Plymouth to a growing list of Idaho schools planning to reopen this month during the coronavirus pandemic — despite recommendations from their local health district not to.

Haws said New Plymouth considered Southwest District Health’s recommendation. But he added the ultimate responsibility to open or close lies with the local school board, a decision it did not take lightly.

“We are a public board with public responsibilities to the parents and the students in our community,” Haws said in a phone interview with the Idaho Statesman. “And we don’t abdicate our responsibility to statisticians in Nampa or Boise or someplace else.”

Southwest District Health placed all of Payette County in the red category of Idaho’s back-to-school guidelines Aug. 5. That means the county has the highest level of community spread, which comes with a recommendation to close school buildings.

But Haws noted Southwest District Health’s public data shows New Plymouth’s zip code with a lower level of spread. As of Thursday, the zip code averaged 1.9 cases per day per 10,000 residents the previous week. That mathematically puts New Plymouth in the yellow category of Southwest District Health’s four-tier alert system (gray, yellow, orange, red).

Yellow leaves New Plymouth with a wide range of recommendations under the state’s back-to-school guidelines, everything from full reopening to alternating schedules to all online learning.

But Southwest District Health spokesperson Katrina Williams said its recommendations aren’t that simple.

Payette County hasn’t crossed the five cases per 10,000 people threshold for the red category. Its most recent data show 3.43 daily new cases per 10,000 people. But the county shows other troubling signs that convinced Southwest District Health to place it in the red, Williams said.

Between July 26 and Aug. 8, 40% of the county’s confirmed cases didn’t know where they were exposed to COVID-19, a sign of sustained community spread.

Williams added Payette County also has outbreaks in local workplaces. And the county’s residents often commute into other areas with high spread, posing further risk.

“We are looking at a much bigger picture when we determine that by county,” Southwest District Health Director Nikole Zogg said. “The reason that gets harder in smaller (areas) — say, by zip code, or census tract or school district boundaries — is some of that information we don’t get to that specific level.

“The hospitalization data, for example, is pretty regional. We can’t look to hospital access by zip code, per se.”

New Plymouth is not alone in reopening against the recommendation of their local health district.

PayetteParma, Homedale, Marsing and Melba also plan to open for a full school week this month. Those five will encourage, but not require, masks. Their counties are also in the red category.

Larger school districts VallivueKuna, Emmett and Weiser — as well as Bishop Kelly — plan to open with an alternating-day schedule. Half the students will attend one day, the other half the next.

That limits the number of students in a classroom, but it also runs against their county’s place in the red category of community spread.

The executive director of the Idaho School Boards Association warned schools about breaking from health district guidance, Idaho Ed News reported last week. Karen Echeverria said opening against recommendations could leave them vulnerable to lawsuits, even if the Legislature passes new liability protections during a special session this month.

Zogg said Southwest District Health works with schools to provide guidance. She acknowledged schools have the final say. But she worries those going against recommendations could lead to another outbreak.

“We do have concern if they don’t follow certain recommendations or guidance,” she said. “We do have concern about what ramifications there could be in terms of enhanced disease spread in the community.

“We can’t predict if that will happen or not. But that would be our concern right now.”

STATISTICAL OR MEDICAL ADVICE?

Haws said he and the New Plymouth School Board respected the work and information provided by Southwest District Health. The school board will continue to use its data going forward and will adjust its reopening plan if conditions change.

But he said the health district’s wasn’t the only perspective New Plymouth weighed.

“If you want to say that a health district, like Southwest District Health, that their suggestions ought to be fully binding, then you’re really saying that theirs is the only valid perspective,” Haws said. “But they don’t sit here and consider the social well-being of children, the emotional well-being of children, the workings of families, the desires of parents.

“They don’t consider all those things.”

He added he views the health district more as a statistical organization than a medical one.

Zogg pushed back against that description. She said Southwest District is both a statistical and medical organization. It employs a medical director with expertise in family medicine and infectious diseases. It also relies on its own epidemiologists, who focus on how diseases spread through communities.

“Their goal is to use that knowledge and expertise to help limit the spread of disease in our community,” Zogg said.

HOW NEW PLYMOUTH PLANS TO REOPEN

New Plymouth requires everyone in its buildings to wear facial coverings when they can’t maintain 6 feet of distance from others. It will provide masks to anyone who needs them.

New Plymouth Superintendent David Sotutu noted that kind of distance will be hard to achieve with all students on campus.

“There will need to be masks in classrooms,” he said.

Students will need to wear masks on the bus. The school will stagger release times to avoid crowding. It will increase its sanitation procedures. And the district is weighing how to serve lunch to create more social distancing.

New Plymouth also has an option for students to learn solely online. The district has computers for all of its middle and high school students, and it should have enough by October to provide one for all elementary students, too, Sotutu said.

Haws said the ultimate decision to send students back to school lies with parents, who can choose the online option if they don’t feel safe. But he noted only 12% of parents surveyed wanted to start the year fully online, and he’s only heard one complaint from someone outside the district about New Plymouth’s reopening.

“It appears our parents, our families, our patrons are all in line with what we’re doing,” Haws said.

In fact, New Plymouth didn’t go far enough for some. Sotutu said some parents have unenrolled their children from the district because of the mask requirement.

“I imagine there will be a lot of people watching our community to see what happens,” Sotutu said. “I know that in the national news they are reporting on how things are going in districts that have made similar decisions.

“We are going to do the best we can with the guidelines and the equipment we have.”

Reopening may bring extra attention to New Plymouth. But Haws isn’t advocating anyone else follow its path.

“I’m not ideological,” he said. “I’m not going to say that because we did it everybody else ought to do the same thing. And I don’t think somebody in Washington, D.C., or in Boise, Idaho, ought to be telling us what we need to do.

“We evaluate the facts here on the ground in little New Plymouth, in our community, and take the pulse of our parents and our students. And we make a decision.”

NOTE: This story published with the permission of the Idaho Statesman.

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