Debbie Critchfield EdNews file

Idaho State Board of Education President Debbie Critchfield

The school reopening plan heading to the State Board of Education on Thursday is built on the assumption that all districts can and will return to in-person classes this fall.

The State Board will hear the plan created by the Public Schools Reopening Committee during a special meeting at 8:30 a.m. Thursday morning that will be live-streamed on the Board of Education Facebook page. Gov. Brad Little will present the outlines of the plan to the board, and the board will later consider a final vote to approve the outline.

State Board of Education President Debbie Critchfield was chairwoman of the Public Schools Reopening Committee. She said the plan being submitted to the board Thursday is meant to detail state expectations for how learning and school services will be provided in the fall and offer suggestions for best practices for districts. It also will clarify that local school boards will have the final say on school reopenings and measures in place to control the spread of coronavirus, with few requirements made at the state level.

“The expectation and priority, from the governor down, is that we start school up. This plan is not intended to say what they have to do in order to start school, everything is designed to support their decision to be in school,” Critchfield said.

The approach differs from the steps taken by the State Board of Education during the spring. After districts canceled in-person classes voluntarily or were required to close, the board enacted a series of requirements that schools needed to meet in order to return to classes. The reopening plan will not have any of those mandates for the fall.

Critchfield said that actions from the governor or public health agencies could restrict the choices schools had when it came to holding classes. But she said the State Board of Education would not be requiring schools to close if they had cases, and the board did not want to “referee what schools should do.”

“We were in a different environment in the spring, the environment of slowing the spread and trying to drastically reduce the number of confirmed cases. We’ve learned a lot since then and the expectation is that thoughtful decisions will be made by districts,” Critchfield said.

Idaho had a combined 1,984 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in March and April. July has already had more than 2,000 new confirmed and probable cases, according to the state’s coronavirus website. Statewide there had been 8,539 confirmed and probable cases since the pandemic began.

The reopening plan will contain some guidelines and definitions for the different levels of viral spread that could trigger different decisions by a district, such as when the community spread goes from mild to moderate or severe levels. Districts leaders will be asked to consult with public health experts on their plans but will have the final say on any plans.

Critchfield said that the number of cases that would require a full school closure and the potential responses would be different in a small charter school than a major district like West Ada. She said that it was wise for districts to plan for hybrid approaches to limit the spread of the virus so that schools didn’t have to consider closing for every new case.

“We don’t want people to over-solve for a smaller problem. We want to support districts and let them know they don’t have to go from 0 to 100,” Critchfield said.

She said that she hoped the board would approve the reopening plan during its Thursday meeting and that she expected further changes would be made to the plan over the weeks until the fall school started.

Brennen is the main education reporter for the Post Register. Contact him with news tips at 208-542-6711.