Idahoans want to get back to normal. Our loved ones, our businesses, and our way of life have suffered, and we’re all ready to move on. Most importantly, we want our kids back in school where they can best learn, grow and thrive.
That said, Idaho’s school districts face tough choices and no-win situations. The simple truth is that there is no playbook for reopening schools in the midst of a global pandemic. Our teachers are scared for their health. Remote learning has parents at their wits’ end. Students miss their peers. And school board members are supposed to have all the answers.
When I resigned from the Boise School Board last month, after eight years of service, I noted that school board members are being asked to make decisions that impact the physical and mental health of students, families, and staff—without having the knowledge or expertise to make such decisions. Despite being a professor of biology and researcher, for me it was an untenable position that kept me up at night; I suggested that the board appoint a physician to replace me.
If we could predict the future, we’d know exactly where COVID-19 cases were surging and could take action to keep everyone healthy and prevent an outbreak from forcing another shutdown. But we currently don’t have a warning system; in fact, trustees are forced to make public health decisions based on information that’s already out of date.
Too often, by the time we detect a case surge in a school, it has likely been spreading in the community for at least a few days, if not longer. That’s because it takes a while for people to feel sick, see a doctor, get a test and learn the result. That person has likely brought the virus to school or work with them in that timeframe, but by the time we see the numbers go up, it’s probably too late to do something about it.
Without real-time data, we’re fighting with at least one hand tied behind our backs. This isn’t happening just here in Idaho—it’s a nationwide problem. But schools are our first line of defense, so this is where we should focus on reducing transmission. The best way to do that is with better data.
We can predict the weather long before it happens. Thanks to technology that’s available to us today (if the state would simply make the small investment using federal CARES Act dollars), we can actually do the same with contagious illness—now, in future pandemics, and even with flu outbreaks. One such program I’ve become aware of uses smart thermometer technology to help us better understand exactly when and where outbreaks are starting and spreading in our schools. Analyzing temperature and symptoms from home and in real time gives an accurate and much faster picture of what’s happening in a community than waiting for people to get tested.
If we understood what was happening in real time, we’d have the flexibility to act grade by grade, school by school, or county by county, keeping more people healthy and pursuing localized and less burdensome solutions.
School leaders are being asked to make life-or-death decisions, and Idahoans are counting on them to get it right. They need the best information to have a chance at success, and if technology offers us a leg up, we should take it. Gov. Little and the state agencies working to contain the crisis can and should take a giant step forward in fighting the pandemic and empowering leaders at the local level by adding this critical tool to our pandemic toolbox.
Dr. Troy Rohn is a professor and researcher at Boise State University. He served eight years on the Boise School Board.