Amid what the superintendent called an unprecedented time, the Pocatello-Chubbuck School District 25 Board of Trustees unanimously voted Monday afternoon to close all district schools from Tuesday through at least April 3 due to the threat of the coronavirus.
During the 3 p.m. press conference at the district office building on Pole Line Road in Pocatello, District 25 Superintendent Doug Howell said the school district was in uncharted territory while briefing board members about the rapidly developing coronavirus precautions.
Howell said district officials spent five hours on Sunday developing an emergency closure plan and met with Southeast Idaho Public Health officials around 9:30 a.m. Monday, where the Centers for Disease Control opinion to have schools remain in session was reaffirmed.
However, around 2 p.m. Monday, President Donald Trump recommended new guidelines to slow the spread of the coronavirus, including closing all schools nationwide and avoiding gatherings or groups of more than 10 people.
“We recommend that the board close schools Tuesday, March 17, through Friday, March 27, of 2020,” Howell said. “The education center will remain open for calls and to make arrangements for students to pick up vital items left at school and to complete the logistics of what we need to do in preparation of a long-term closure.”
In addition to closing its schools this week starting Tuesday, the school board voted to close all schools the week after spring break, meaning the district’s schools will remain closed through April 3 and possibly longer depending on the spread of the virus.
On March 30, the Board of Trustees and District 25 officials will reconvene to determine if additional school closures beyond April 3 are necessary and to also discuss various distance-learning options the district can implement if the emergency school closure is not extended. One option for distance learning includes providing online instruction and lending Chromebooks to students without a home computer or developing pencil and paper education packets for students without internet access, Howell said.
Following concerns from parents and district officials that many students rely on school lunches as some of their only meals of the day, District 25 officials will also discuss the possibility of starting a feeding program on March 30 similar to what it offers in local parks during the summer if the emergency school closures are extended beyond April 3.
Idaho public health officials announced the state’s first confirmed case of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, on Friday. By Saturday evening the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare had confirmed that four more people had tested positive for the illness including East Idaho’s first case — a woman under age 60 from Teton County.
No new confirmed coronavirus cases have been reported in the Gem State as of Monday evening.
Before Trump issued more stringent coronavirus precautionary measures Monday afternoon, the CDC as well as Idaho Public Health officials and Gov. Brad Little recommended that state schools remain open and for people to avoid crowds of 50 people or more.
Little made the decision not to order the state’s public schools to close one day after state public health officials announced that the number of Idaho residents infected with the coronavirus had jumped to five and a few hours after the Idaho Education Association teachers union urged the governor to close schools statewide for at least three weeks.
Mary Anne McGrory, president of the Pocatello Education Association, said she was inundated with phone calls from District 25 employees early Monday, receiving about 100 emails since 1 a.m. and a plethora of phone calls. At McGrory’s request, Howell asked the board to approve a recommendation that all District 25 employees, including those not operating under a contract, be paid during the two weeks the district’s schools are closed.
The measure carried unanimously.
“Teachers are contracted employees so we would have had to make up that missed time in the summer,” McGrory said.
“Our main concern was for those that are not on a contract and get paid hourly wages. We wanted to make sure they were still going to get paid due to no fault of their own.”
McGrory echoed Howell’s sentiments, in that the coronavirus outbreak is an unprecedented incident and asked parents to not take these school closures lightly.
“We ask parents to treat this not as a vacation time but to really implement the recommendations of health officials and keep their children home,” McGrory said. “I really want to emphasize that none of the teacher’s took the decision to close lightly and we are wholeheartedly supportive of our students. We just want to ensure the health and well-being of everyone in our community.”
Howell said during the press conference public health officials had reported that 57 percent of school districts statewide had closed as of 2 p.m. Monday.
In East Idaho, the Bear Lake School District closed Sunday, and the American Falls School District announced that it would close its schools Friday through at least April 3. The Cassia County and Teton school districts announced the closure of their schools on Sunday, with Teton schools closing starting Monday and Cassia County schools closing starting Tuesday.
The Bonneville School District 93 Board of Trustees also held an emergency meeting on Sunday night and decided to close its schools Thursday and Friday for a deep cleaning by maintenance personnel, but beyond that no closures were planned in the district. The Firth School District 59 announced Monday evening its closing all of its schools starting Wednesday until at least March 30.
Madison School District 321 has announced the closure of its schools starting Wednesday through at least April 3. The Shelley Joint School District 60 and Blackfoot School District 55 announced school closures from Tuesday through at least April 3.
A growing number of Idaho charter and private schools are also deciding to close because of the virus. The Pocatello Community Charter School announced around 5 p.m. Monday that it will close Tuesday through at least March 20. Gem Prep Pocatello in the Pine Ridge Mall announced shortly after 2 p.m Monday that it is closing effective Tuesday through March 30, at which point online instruction will begin, continuing indefinitely, Principal Gerald Love said Monday.
Connor Academy Public Charter School in Chubbuck announced at about 7 p.m. Tuesday it is closing school Tuesday through at least April 3. The school will be unlocked from 8 a.m. until noon on Tuesday to allow parents to collect belongings.
Idaho Science and Technology Charter School will close it’s schools Tuesday through at least April 3 and Bingham Academy Charter School will close Tuesday through at least March 29.
Alturas International Academy in Idaho Falls announced on its Facebook page that, “After careful consideration and collaboration with the Board of Directors, we have decided it is in the best interest of our students, staff and community members to temporarily close Alturas International Academy.” The charter school will start with a soft close on Monday and Tuesday and initiate a full school closure from Wednesday until at least April 3.
Idaho State University announced Friday that it was starting spring break immediately and no in-person classes will be held for the remainder of the semester. All ISU classes will be held online only when spring break ends on March 30. Furthermore, ISU announced Monday that its canceling spring commencement set for May 9 and other graduation related activities and is working right now to implement alternate ways of celebrating graduating students.
The College of Eastern Idaho has announced on its website that it will hold all regularly scheduled classes on Monday and Tuesday. It will suspend all classes on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. The college’s faculty will use those days to move their face-to-face content into an online format.
All CEI offices and student-facing services will be open Monday through Friday with business as usual. Additionally, Workforce Training & Continuing Education classes will be held on a case-by-case basis until further notice, the website said.
Boise State University students will attend classes online for the remainder of the semester, and the Idaho Steelheads hockey team announced that the rest of its season is canceled.
The Idaho Supreme Court suspended in-person court appearances except for emergencies last week, and it asked people to postpone or reschedule civil and criminal cases when possible.
The Ada County Courthouse banned most people from the building unless they work there or are otherwise directly involved with cases, such as attorneys, witnesses and victim support workers.
Local court officials announced that all Monday court hearings had been canceled in the 6th Judicial District, which includes Bannock, Power, Caribou, Bear Lake, Oneida and Franklin counties. Court operations in the 6th Judicial District will resume Tuesday and continue through April 10 under the provisions of the Idaho Supreme Court emergency declaration, court officials said in a Monday evening email.
Also on Monday, the City of Pocatello announced the indefinite closures of the Marshall Public Library as well as its Parks and Recreation offices and Community Recreation Center on Wilson Avenue.
To read all the latest local coronavirus news stick with the Idaho State Journal at idahostatejournal.com/coronavirus.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.