Pocatello-Chubbuck School District 25 marked its first day of school on Wednesday mostly mask-free and seemingly ready to put last year’s pandemic woes behind it.
From the district’s elementary schools to its high schools, the back-to-school mood was a mixture of excitement for a fresh start and a collective mental fatigue brought on by the enduring and worsening coronavirus health crisis.
Anyone who lived through the past year and a half might have been unnerved at the sight of more than 1,000 maskless high schoolers packed like sardines in the bleachers of Pocatello High School’s gymnasium.
But for a school district that has largely decided to check talk of COVID-19 at the door in the interest of bringing back a sense of normalcy, the scene symbolized an overwhelming desire to turn the page on a stressful year.
With just two days of the school year in the books, though, it’s impossible to say with any certainty how the pandemic, which local health experts warn is still a threat to public health and safety, will impact the district’s schools.
In nearby Blackfoot, Rockford Elementary School has already retreated to online schooling for students after four staff members tested positive for the virus in just the first week of the school year. The school sent students home on Aug. 24, and classrooms won’t reopen until Sept. 7.
Tracy McCulloch, the community health director for Southeastern Idaho Public Health, said the local health agency is concerned that as the school year goes on more schools across the region will have similar experiences.
”With our low vaccination rate and with the delta variant circulating, bringing all these kids back to school who haven’t been vaccinated is concerning, especially with them not taking precautions and not wearing masks,” McCulloch said.
Just in the last week, 77 children under the age of 18 in Southeast Idaho are confirmed to have contracted the coronavirus, according to McCulloch. In a week span at the same time last year, only 25 cases had been reported among that age group.
”It makes sense,” McCulloch said of the data. “When we say the delta variant is three times more contagious, these numbers show that.”
Southeastern Idaho Public Health reported 81 new coronavirus infections on Thursday. Just under 550 residents across the eight-county region are currently infected with the virus, more than 300 of whom are in Bannock County.
District 25 administrators say their focus is on maintaining in-person learning through the entire school year. They’re hoping the optional mask policy the district’s Board of Trustees adopted on Aug. 18, paired with regular cleaning practices, is enough to thwart the virus and keep students in classrooms.
”We heard from families very loudly and clearly that they want choice, and so our board has said, ‘OK. We’ve heard you and we’re going to get that message out there,’” said Courtney Fisher, a spokesperson for District 25.
Fisher said people know what the guidance is, whether it’s from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or Southeastern Idaho Public Health, and “now it’s up to families at their discretion to choose what’s best for them.”
”We can’t ignore that we’re still in a health crisis and we’re gonna all work together to do what we can do, but we’re all just hoping for a normal start to the year and you can really feel that in the schools,” she said.
At Washington Elementary School in Pocatello, Principal Angela Stevens said COVID-19 is not weighing much anymore on teachers and students there, at least in daily conversations.
”With our staff, nobody really even talks about it. It’s not a big concern,” Stevens said of the coronavirus’s impact on her school.
Washington Elementary, along with all of the district’s schools, is in person full time with an optional mask policy in place. Much like in Pocatello High School, mask-wearing is few and far between among school attendees.
Elementary age children are among a small portion of the population who are not eligible to get vaccinated against COVID-19. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is only approved for use in children as young as 12 years old.
District 25 has not confirmed any COVID-19 cases in its schools so far. Neighboring Marsh Valley School District 21, which started the school year on Aug. 18 and is operating under an optional mask policy, also has not confirmed any cases of COVID-19 in its schools.
Superintendent Randy Jensen said in his district’s schools, the virus weighs differently on different groups. Some are not concerned with it and others are.
“It’s kind of weird, but I think generally all of us are concerned with safety,” Jensen said. “We want to do what we can to protect our kids as best we can.”
McCulloch said while her agency’s guidance does not align with how school districts across the region have decided to respond to the ongoing pandemic, she understands that health safety protocols are at their discretion.
“Whatever they want to do, it’s completely up to them,” she said. “We would prefer they follow our guidance, but we know that this has been so difficult for all of us and it’s been hard on young people. The schools have been great and I just feel for them and what they’ve had to deal with over the last year and a half.”