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Students return to Wood River Middle School on the first day of school, Monday, Aug 23. Two students at the school are out with COVID-19, while four are quarantining, according to the school district.

Thirty-one students and three employees are in quarantine after the first week of school, according to the Blaine County School District—but that number would be much higher without the district’s mask requirement, Superintendent Jim Foudy said Monday.

In all, five students were COVID-19 positive as of Thursday, Aug. 26, when the district updated its COVID-19 dashboard. Twenty-six other students and three staff members were in quarantine for close contact with a positive case—though none of those close contacts came to school, Foudy said.

“If we did not have a mask mandate, imagine the number of kids that would be out of school right now,” he said.

The school district is following federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for quarantining. Under that protocol, anyone unvaccinated who has been within 6 feet of a COVID-19 positive person for a cumulative 15 minutes over the course of a day should quarantine, unless masks were worn by everyone throughout the period, the CDC says. In other words, Foudy said, a mask is the difference between quarantining one person versus an entire classroom—or, in the case of Alturas Elementary last year, an entire school.

“Think of a 6-year-old—they don’t stay in one spot all day long,” he said. “They’d likely have contact with everyone else in the room. Young people don’t sit still; that changes the equation.”

Both the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatricians recommend that schools mandate masks indoors. But requiring them puts the school district once again on the vanguard of COVID-19 protocols in the area; though cities have discussed reinstituting masks to stymie the delta variant, no jurisdiction has made it law. 

Among Idaho’s school districts, the BCSD is also among the most cautious in the state. It is one of approximately a dozen statewide requiring masks, Idaho Education News reported this week. More than 160 had no mandate. West Ada, the state’s largest school district, allows students to opt out of the district’s requirement with a permission slip.

The Blaine County School Board voted 4-1 to implement a suite of COVID-19 safety measures—mask requirements among them—during a special meeting on Aug. 19. The plan sees staff and students wearing masks indoors during the school day. Masks aren’t required outside and will be optional for students and staff if the state Department of Health and Welfare deems the community’s COVID-19 transmission level “minimal,” or “green”—its lowest risk designation. (Blaine is currently in the “critical” red category, its highest.) All parents, volunteers, vendors and outside members of the public must wear masks to enter school buildings.

The decision didn’t come quickly or quietly. The subject prompted a political flare-up and spurred more than 150 public comments for and against the requirement. Protestors drove the school board to cut short an initial attempt to debate on the measure, pushing the trustees to a digital meeting for a final vote.

Afterward, as tensions simmered, dozens of parents threatened to pull their kids out of Blaine County public schools in protest of mask requirements. So far, it’s unclear how many did, Foudy said. Enrollment—the number of students signed up—is different from attendance—the number that show up. Administrators will have a better idea on Friday, Foudy said, when the district “unenrolls” students who haven’t come to class within the first school 10 days.

“We suspect that anybody who was going to unenroll [because of the mask requirement] did so,” Foudy said. “I think some people did. But I also think some people enrolled once we put our mask policy in place.”

So far, enrollment is right around projections at all middle and elementary schools, he said. Wood River High School, however, has surpassed expectations. The official count won’t occur until November, though Foudy expects staff to present preliminary figures to the school board during its regular monthly meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 14.

Though splitting over mask requirements, the board—as well as district administrators—agreed on the importance of keeping schools open full time. A week into school, Foudy seemed optimistic about meeting that goal—and avoiding the online classroom setups that hindered the last year and a half.

“We’re going to avoid that at all costs—and I don’t think we’re going to have to go there,” he said. “Delta’s different,” he said of the contagious COVID variant, making the next few months hard to predict. But the only reason the district would return to online models would be if a school closed—meaning there were so many exposures that the district couldn’t practically contact trace them all.

“I can’t imagine us seeing that level of spread,” he said.

State sees surge in youth cases

Blaine schools opened on Aug. 23 to rising COVID-19 cases across the county, region and state as a whole. The state doesn’t specifically report K-12 COVID-19 cases, though it does tally school-age children. Last week, 630 kids ages 5-17 tested positive for the virus statewide, according to Idaho Education News’ Kevin Richert.

Of that age group, only children 12- to 17-years-old are eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccinations. There, Blaine County excels. In an Aug. 19 briefing to school leadership, Deputy State Epidemiologist Kathy Turner said that more than 47% of Blaine County’s 12- to 17-year-old population was vaccinated—the highest in Idaho. Blaine’s neighbor, Camas County, was the lowest, at 3.2%. About 30 of Idaho’s 44 counties fell between 5% and 15%.

Turner expects those rates are higher now, with more teens and adolescents receiving their second doses of the vaccine series towards the end of August, she said.

Still, the youngest students—and those who have yet to start school—aren’t eligible for the shots.

Cases are rising sharply in the 5-12 age group, Turner said. And cases among the pre-school demographic, ages 0-4, have been increasing “dramatically” into August, Turner said.

“These are the younger brothers and sisters of students heading into Idaho schools,” she said.

Meanwhile, the BCSD is “in the process” of gathering information from its employees on their vaccination status, Foudy said.

During an Aug. 10 meeting, school board Chairman Keith Roark said that the district had received a pair of legal opinions indicating that the BCSD’s human resources department can ask teachers for vaccination records. That question isn’t “a medical inquiry,” according to the board’s counsel, meaning federal medical confidentiality laws don’t apply.

The district’s HR department has a “confidential mechanism” for tracking vaccination records, according to Human Resources Director Brooke Marshall.

The BCSD has not required teachers to get COVID-19 vaccines—though, Roark said at the time, it may be allowed to. A separate legal opinion informed the board that it has the right to mandate the vaccine, according to Roark—though “I’m not saying we’re going to do that,” he said.

“We haven’t done that yet, because we hope our staff will comply willingly.”

Email the writer: mdee@mtexpress.com

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