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'We're in a global pandemic, there is no playbook written for this': Boise School Board trustee explains reopening decision

The decision from the Boise School board was vastly different than that of neighboring West Ada. But why?

BOISE, Idaho — Idaho's two largest school districts sit within a few miles of one another, but on Tuesday night, the Boise and West Ada School District board of trustees voted on two very different plans for reopening in the fall.

West Ada will push back the state of the school year to September 8, with a decision of what returning to school will look like to be made at the district's next board meeting on August 25.

The district says they're still waiting on thousands of electronic devices to be delivered to hand out to the students who need them.

Across town, Boise students will return to school on August 17 but will do so online. The board said they hope to have students back to in-person learning by September 8. 

BSD said they've already handed out electronic devices to their students and have set up an online school complete with a principal and teachers and a curriculum that they say will look nothing like last spring.

"I think that the boards ultimately came to the decisions based on what they thought was going to be best practice for the students and for the teachers and getting the educational system back up and running," Brandon Atkins of Central District Health said.

Boise School Board trustee Dennis Doan, a former captain of the Boise Fire Department, said the biggest factor they considered was looking at the recommendation of the State Board of Education guidelines. And based on Central District Health's 'red' category ranking for Ada County, it meant no in-person learning.

"[Central District Health's] recommendation that we not be meeting together, how can we not follow that?" Doan said Wednesday.

Of the 800 or so emails the board was getting from parents, Doan says about half were pushing for in-person learning.

"I hear them. We want our kids in school. I totally understand," Doan said. "I feel for the single parents, I feel for the firefighters and the nurses who have kids and have to go back to work. I get it. But at the end of the day, we needed to make the safest decision for our teachers and our kids, and right now, we believe that is delaying and starting online until at least September 8."

In those three weeks, Doan says he hopes the community will begin to take the pandemic more seriously.

"I'm hoping that we hand wash, that we wear masks, that we social distance, so we get this under control, so that we can go back to school," he said.

"If people in our communities are going to double down and say 'we have got to do better, we've got to do more,' we could see that change in two weeks, but it's going to take the community effort to do that, not just the work and the response of our boards or our school boards," Atkins said. "So our public media messaging, myself, or any of it, it is going to take all of us, everything we can to help that change."

The decision from the Boise School board was vastly different than that of neighboring West Ada.

"In the response to West Ada, it has kicked the can down the road just a little bit, hoping for that response to come and hoping there would be a change but ultimately, they should have a plan in place should that not happen," Atkins said.

"We hope that they're working together, hand in hand and that the reactions to those criteria they're given are similar, but we can't force them to make a choice based on it."

On the flip side, Doan says that shouldn't be taken as a good or a bad decision.

"We're in a global pandemic that there is no playbook written for this. All of us as school boards and all of us as school districts are trying to do the best we can with the information we have," Doan said. "We're gathering as much as we can and we're trying to be safe for our students and for our teachers, and the decision we came up with is a little different than West Ada's, but I don't think anybody's is wrong or right."

"We have our Canyon County partners next to us, so a lot of our Canyon County residents work in Ada County. We're giving the same messaging, but as you are very well aware, that is not happening across the board," Atkins added, referring to Southwest District Health's decision to not enforce a mask mandate in neighboring Canyon County. "So while I can say yes, I would love to see that happening and making decisions based on what they're seeing and best practices, ultimately those boards are going to make those decisions and we hope they're going to use the best guidance."

For parents in the Boise School District, the decision of whether or not to sign your students up for virtual school or online school this semester will need to be made soon. The deadline is Friday, August 7 at noon.

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