Area schools eye plans for re-opening

Area school districts are planning how they will get students back in the classroom despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. School boards will be presented with district plans August 10.

Plummer-Worley School District, where the majority of Benewah County COVID-19 cases have occurred, will have in-school classes beginning September 8.

“Students will be returning to their respective schools on September 8, provided the level of community spread and Panhandle Health data supports the opening. This opening will be on campus and in the classroom,” Superintendent Russ Mitchell said.

For now, the plan is for students to attend classes five days per week, with the option of facial coverings, and social distancing practices in place “...where possible and reasonable.”

Plummer-Worley administrators have yet to work out the detailed implementation of their plan but expect to do so, the week of July 27, according to Mr. Mitchell. A date to bring the plan before the Plummer school board was not provided.

School districts throughout the county are planning for school to resume this fall, despite the pandemic, after state released a framework for districts to follow, July 9.

The framework outlines what is expected of schools depending on the transmission level of COVID-19 within their respective community. The plan does not specify what will determine a school’s transmission level except that is determined by local health districts.

According to St. Maries School District Superintendent Alica Holthaus, the Panhandle Health District has not provided their formula for determining what category a district is in.

The local health district did tell Ms. Holthaus that as of July 17, the district is in category two, which St. Maries refers to as the yellow phase, that could mean going to a hybrid structure for St. Maries.

“We are yellow and we don’t get to pick,” Ms. Holthaus said. “We have to go by the county because we have students from all over.”

Ms. Holthaus wants the health district to determine pandemic categories by district rather than county.

“I’ve been begging, pleading, that we get to breakdown those numbers by district but we don’t have that choice,” she said.

The framework does not call for a county-wide approach by health districts. Local health districts are asked to identify the category of transmission level within a community based on data and to advise local education agencies. What constitutes a community according to the framework is undefined.

It’s worth noting that hybrid instruction is optional in category two according to the state framework.

“School buildings open but option of limited/staggered use of school buildings with physical distancing and sanitation (sic),” is how the framework defines category two.

Only category three, or red, stipulates that schools should close and engage in distance learning.

The St. Maries School District will present its plan to the school board August 10, according to Ms. Holthaus. Until then, administrators will be meeting weekly to figure out detailed implementation for each transmission category.

Kootenai District 274 held their first planning meeting July 27. Superintendent Wade Pilloud said that the details are still being worked out but that they will present a plan to their school board August 10.

During the July 22 St. Maries meeting concerns included spatial challenges to social distancing, adequate and sustainable sanitation practices, staff and student screening for COVID-19 symptoms, student compliance, and technological obstacles to remote learning. Ultimately, each district and each school will have to overcome these obstacles in their own way.

How schools will handle transitioning between transmission categories is also a concern. Ms. Holthaus does not expect it to be easy and equates it to constantly adjusting to snow day closures.

“That snow day call we all hate--there’s going to be a lot of those, I have a feeling,” Ms. Holthaus said.

Plans in every district remain subject to change between now and the start of school in September.

According to Panhandle Health and Benewah Community Hospital, positive tests for COVID-19 are on the rise throughout Benewah County.

“As is painfully obvious, even as observed in Kootenai County this last week regarding face masks, this is a fluid situation and even the best of plans are likely to change,” Mr. Mitchell said.

A request for comment from Panhandle Health District did not receive a response in time for publication of this article.

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