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With the start of the school year just over a month away, the Blaine County School District has yet to decide whether learning will take place at home, in the classroom or through a combination of both.

Meanwhile, Gov. Brad Little has said he would like to see schools reopen in the fall. In a press conference Thursday, Little told reporters he expects in-person instruction to resume at the end of the summer.

“Despite the incredible advances in digital learning, you can never replace the value and impact of in-person interaction with a professional, dedicated teacher,” Little said. “The expectation is that schools will not be closed for an extended period of time.”

In Blaine County, that decision will likely be made sometime in the two weeks leading up to the first day of school, district officials say, and will hinge on the number of local COVID-19 cases and guidance from health officials. The district will not resume in-person learning without the approval of the South Central Public Health District, Superintendent GwenCarol Holmes said.

“We’re hoping for the best and trying to be prepared for the worst,” Holmes told trustees at a school board meeting Tuesday.

Also on Thursday, Little and the Idaho State Board of Education unveiled a set of statewide safety recommendations for school reentry. Both the state’s guidelines and the district’s reentry plan include three potential scenarios for the start of the school year. Under the first model, school would resume as usual, with students and teachers in buildings five days a week. In the second scenario, only a portion of students would be inside the school building on any given day, while the remainder worked from home; students would alternate attendance days and the district would implement staggered start times across grade levels. Under the third scenario, all learning would take place from home.

A discussion at Tuesday night’s school board meeting offered a clearer picture of what each of those scenarios might look like in Blaine County.

If the number of new confirmed and probable cases in Blaine County remains relatively low, as it has in recent weeks, Holmes said, she will likely recommend that the district seek to fully reopen schools with local health officials’ approval. There have been 532 confirmed cases and 13 probable cases in Blaine County as of Wednesday evening, according to the South Central Public Health District, with nine people testing positive in the county in the past two weeks.

But if the region sees a significant uptick in cases between now and Aug. 17, when school is scheduled to start, students will most likely work from home all or some of the time, Holmes said.

“If it spikes, as it is in the Magic Valley, I don’t see how we’ll be able to [fully reopen schools],” Holmes said. In Twin Falls County, 173 people have tested positive for the virus over the past two weeks.

The district does not have specific benchmarks in mind for moving from one plan to the next, Holmes said; those decisions will be made in cooperation with the Health District. A representative from the Health District told local superintendents at a recent meeting that the health district would not make any decisions about which plan is appropriate until two weeks before the start of school, Holmes said.

If Blaine County does resume in-person instruction, certain social distancing and safety precautions would go into place, according to the district’s reentry plan. Teachers and students would wear face coverings, and each school would have an additional room to isolate any child displaying symptoms of COVID-19 while they wait for a parent to pick them up.

“We’re trying to be very clear with that, that kids are not allowed to be at school when they’re sick,” Holmes said.

The district has ordered child-size masks for students who do not have a face covering of their own, Holmes said. Tuesday’s meeting also included some discussion of how mask use would be enforced. Holmes said she would prefer to see face coverings encouraged through positive, rather than punitive, reinforcement.

“I think the kids will adapt to it much easier than we think,” she said.

Under Plan B—which includes a mix of working from home and in-school instruction—all K-3 students would attend school four days a week. Students in fourth grade and older would attend two days a week—likely either Monday and Wednesday or Tuesday and Thursday—with Fridays reserved as a day for teachers to plan and prepare. Start times would be staggered throughout schools and grade levels to allow greater social distancing on buses.

Plan C calls for an entirely remote learning model, with all students learning from home as they did for the final months of the 2019-20 school year.

Under both Plan B and Plan C, all extracurricular activities would be canceled.

Email the writer: gkauffman@mtexpress.com

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