Gov. Brad Little this week announced that two new statewide committees have been formed to address educational challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of the committees will formulate a plan for reopening public schools in the fall. The other will address Idaho’s “digital divide” between students who have reliable access to the internet at home and those who don’t.

“Despite these extraordinary circumstances, it is my intent to have schools safely reopen across Idaho in the fall, although it may look different than it has in the past,” Little said in a statement. “Both of the committees, led by State Board of Education members, can support and remove barriers to the fall reopening, provide clear expectations and identify the tools to meet those expectations.”

Both committees are extensions of the Governor’s K-12 Emergency Council, a group formed in March in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Public Schools Reopening Committee, led by Idaho State Board of Education President Debbie Critchfield, will include legislators, State Board of Education members, school administrators, industry representatives and state health officials. The committee is expected to provide guidance and resources for school districts and charter schools in the weeks ahead.

“Our goal is to successfully reopen schools in the fall and provide clear expectations for student learning and guidance to school districts as they make their decisions locally,” Critchfield said in a statement. “Districts are discussing approaches to reopening and how to navigate the learning environment. Many decisions are contingent upon developing and changing conditions.”

In Blaine County, district leaders have formed a tentative reentry plan for the 2020-21 school year, though that plan is expected to change as additional guidance and information becomes available from local and state public health officials. The BCSD plan includes three possible scenarios: one in which all students are physically in school, one in which half of all students are in school and one in which all learning is done remotely.

Which plan the district follows will depend largely on which stage of reopening Idaho is in at the start of the school year. The state is currently in Stage 4—the final stage—which allows for gatherings of 50 or more people with social distancing measures in place. If the state is still in Stage 4 by mid-August, the School District will likely allow all students back into the buildings, according to the reentry plan. But if the state sees a spike in cases and regresses into earlier stages, the district may allow only some students—or no students—to physically attend school.

The reentry plan, which can be viewed on the School District website, also includes guidance for social distancing and mask use in the event that schools physically reopen.

The state’s new Digital Divide Committee, which includes school technology directors, administrators, business leaders and legislators, will be led by State Board of Education member Kurt Liebich.

“When the pandemic forced the soft closure of schools and a transition to distance learning options, it became painfully clear just how wide the digital divide is,” Liebich said in a statement.

The committee will discuss connectivity and access to technological devices for students across the state, Liebich said, and support school districts and charter schools as they develop strategies to implement a blended learning model.

“Robust learning management systems and professional development are also part of our overall vision for each and every public school in our state,” he said.

When distance learning first began in Blaine County in March, 296 students reported having either no internet or insufficient internet at home, according to the School District. For some students, the challenge was financial. Others lacked access because of the location of their home.

Some families lacking high-speed internet received assistance through Cox or SafeLink, while others were served by five traveling vehicles—four buses and a van—that brought WiFi hotspots to nine locations throughout the county each day.

In a Distance Learning Survey sent to parents, students and teachers at the end of the school year, 93 percent of parents who responded said their child had reliable access to a tablet, laptop or computer during distance learning. Seventy-eight percent of parents said they had access to reliable internet service.

Additional information on both of the new statewide committees can be found on the Idaho State Board of Education website.

Email the writer: gkauffman@mtexpress.com

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