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'I'm not ready to take that risk': Boise School Board votes to start school year online

Classes will start online on August 17. The hope is to have students back in class by Sept. 8, but that will depend on how widespread the virus is at that time.

BOISE, Idaho — Students in the Boise School District will begin the school year as planned on Monday, August 17. But they won't be returning to their brick-and-mortar schools, at least not at first.

After a four-hour-long virtual meeting, the Boise School Board voted late Tuesday night to start the school year with online-only learning.

District leaders hope to have students back in classrooms for in-person learning by Sept. 8, but that will depend on the level of community transmission of COVID-19 is at that time.

This decision also suspends all extracurricular and co-curricular contests until Central District Health removes the Category 3 designation for the district. 

Category 3 means there is substantial community spread. According to the state's back to school framework, the response would be distance learning.

During Tuesday night's meeting, Superintendent Coby Dennis voiced his support for starting the school year online.

"This provides the community about a five-week window where we believe we can see those downward trends that we're hopeful we're seeing right now," Dennis said. "This gives an opportunity for the hospitals to get some of their ICU beds and things like that taken care of and it provides us an opportunity to get started on time."

RELATED: West Ada School District pushes start of school year to Sept. 8

Board members also took public comment from dozens of parents, students and educators in the district, many of whom had different ideas about how to safely start school.

One parent, Ann Campbell, urged the board to allow for an in-person option, while also implementing safety protocols.

"I am returning to my classroom at BSU this fall even though I was allowed to choose to teach remotely because I want to teach students, not avatars," she said. "I want the same thing for my son. I fully support health measures and protocols in schools including mandatory masks. We need to be innovative. The school district's motto is everything is possible. Please practice what you preach and don't just punt by moving fully online because the situation is challenging.

A Boise high school student, Shiva Rajbhandari, said his parents want schools to reopen, despite threats to their own health, because they don't trust the program the district is using for the online school. He ultimately urged the board to go with the virtual option if coronavirus rates remain high.

"My parents like many others did not sign me up for the online option offered this fall, because even though they knew they could die if we ended up starting the school with 8,000 cases in the county, they would rather risk it so I can get a real education instead of being an academic practical joke," he said. "And if that's not sacrifice, what is? That's why I'm telling you guys don't open school if cases haven't gone down. Let's start the school year on Google Meet and pick up in-person classes later."

RELATED: Central District Health to consider new restrictions for Ada, Valley counties

Another parent told the board her daughter is going into her senior year at Boise High School, and she wants her to have a normal senior year.

"Spending time with her friends, going to dances, and participating in school sports. I have a strong desire for normalcy for her," Holly Paquette said. "I have had many a sleepless night arguing in my head about my daughter missing out on a normal senior year versus the risk of becoming infected with COVID-19 and perhaps spreading it to a family member or friends or teachers."

She ultimately urged the board to start the year remotely and to continue the online learning for the fall semester. 

However, starting the year remotely will be a challenge for some families. 

"We're a young family. My wife is a nurse, I own a small mechanical business in town so we don't have the ability to teach her or work from home or help teach our kids during the day," Joey Hickman said. "My wife works nights and I work all day and to us online school is impossible because our son suffers from ADHD so getting him to pay attention in class is a good day."

Board members urged the community to listen to public health experts to lower the rate of infection in the community so students can return to school.

"I want nothing more than for our students in the district to go back to school for in-person learning," Trustee Beth Oppenheimer said. "I also understand the impact virtual learning and online learning has on working parents and students with special needs."

Oppenheimer called on the community to do the hard work needed now so students can return.

"As a community, we had all summer to get these [coronvirus] numbers down and get these numbers into a safe place so we could offer in-person learning and get our kids back into school," she said. "Unfortunately as a community, we were not able to do this."

Trustee Troy Rohn also urged the community to do what is necessary to lower the infection rate in the Treasure Valley.

"I take my responsibilities as a trustee very seriously and one of those responsibilities is the safety of our students and our staff," he said. "Even if one teacher, God forbid worst-case scenario, contracted COVID and died, that would be on me for the rest of my life and I'm not ready to take that risk."

RELATED: Interactive map and timelines tracking coronavirus numbers and trends in Idaho

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