Pocatello-Chubbuck School District 25 is asking teachers and other staff members who, based on contact tracing, may have been exposed to COVID-19 to continue working as long as they don’t display any symptoms of the virus.
The staff members will also be required to wear masks, stay six feet away from others and refrain from attending extracurricular school activities.
Administrators, teachers and other school staff are considered to be essential critical infrastructure workers, according to the school district, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has provided them with some latitude regarding isolation.
“The critical infrastructure designation is not policy, but guidance from the Idaho State Board of Education as defined by the Department of Homeland Security,” district spokesperson Courtney Fisher said, adding that they didn’t implement the guidance immediately because they wanted to first gauge the impact COVID-19 cases would have on their operations without underreacting or overreacting. “As the health department began to confirm cases in school among both staff and learners, we determined it was in our best interest to take this proactive approach in order to maintain the continuity of our day-to-day operations, which will, most importantly, maintain continuity of learning. In addition to keeping our learners and staff safe, our guiding mission is to keep learning progressing.”
Fisher says the guidance reinforces the safety protocol the district adopted as part of its Roadmap for the 2020-2021 school year.
Other local schools — along with state and health officials — are also trying to determine the best way to keep moving forward in the midst of the pandemic, especially as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise.
Brigham Young University-Idaho in Rexburg released a statement last week warning that it may have to close the campus and move to online instruction if cases continue to increase.
“BYU-Idaho is deeply concerned by the increase of active COVID-19 cases in our region and on campus. Students and employees are asked to carefully follow the required health restrictions established by Eastern Idaho Public Health (EIPH),” according to a university statement, which adds that EIPH thresholds, including active cases and hospital capacity, will be used to determine whether or not the school can remain open.
As of Thursday, BYU-Idaho had 63 active student cases and 12 employee cases, according to its website.
Idaho State University had 42 new cases between Sept. 23 and 29, according to that school’s website.
The Post Register recently reported that Idaho Falls School District is moving its high schools to a hybrid schedule beginning Oct. 12 to help limit the effects of the virus and make it easier to meet social distancing guidelines. The high schools have been the most affected by COVID-19.
“Yes, kids will be in school less often, but there’s more predictability,” Superintendent George Boland said, according to the newspaper. “And if we have fewer kids in our high schools, we can get to six feet.”
The Teton School District, which reported having 15 positive cases of COVID-19 and 88 possible exposures among students and staff, opted to shut down one of its schools due to staff shortages.
Driggs Elementary was closed on Wednesday and Thursday. Classes were already canceled on Friday.
Principal Allen Carter said seven teachers, one staff member, and one paraprofessional were out Monday due to sickness, according to the Teton Valley News. While not all of the absences were related to positive COVID-19 cases, they did result in a staff and substitute shortage that made things harder on remaining personnel.
That’s an issue Pocatello-Chubbuck School District 25, which listed 16 infected students and 14 infected staff members on its weekly COVID-19 case report, is trying to avoid by implementing its new guidelines.
And some feel the problem is going to keep getting worse before it gets better.
Dr. David Pate, a member of the state’s coronavirus task force and the former CEO of St. Luke’s Health System, believes Idaho is entering its third — and likely worst to date — wave of new COVID-19 infections.
“Every week we are opening up another school and we are putting more kids in classrooms,” Pate recently told the Boise television station KTVB. “In addition we have college campuses back open and we have resumed sports.”
He expects the upcoming cold and flu season to just make things worse.
Gov. Brad Little announced Thursday that Idaho would remain in Stage 4 of its reopening plan for another two weeks after it failed to meet established metrics regarding the number of reported cases, the percentage of positive tests and the number of COVID hospitalizations.
Like Pate, Little is also anticipating an increase in COVID-19 cases in the future.
“As dropping temperatures drive people indoors, we will likely continue to see an uptick and spread across the country. This only reinforces the need for all of us to ramp up our personal actions to slow the spread of coronavirus and keep our kids in school, our loved ones safe and our economy open,” Little said during a press conference before urging people to continue wearing masks, social distancing, washing their hands and staying home when they’re sick.
Idaho hospital officials are already concerned about resources as COVID-19 cases increase.
Idaho Falls Community Hospital was diverting patients on Thursday because it couldn’t treat any more in its intensive care unit, according to the Post Register. Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center in Idaho Falls reported similar staffing concerns although it hadn’t reached divert status yet.
Bingham Memorial Hospital in Blackfoot and Portneuf Medical Center in Pocatello warned public health officials in September that both hospitals were on the “razor’s edge” of being overwhelmed by COVID-19.
On Friday, PMC changed its visitation policy to allow only staff, physicians and patients to enter the hospital and its clinics.
“The health and safety of our patients, their families, and team members are our top priority at Portneuf Medical Center,” CEO Jordan Herget said in a news release. “In order to protect our patients and staff from the increased level of COVID-19 in the community, we are restricting visitation privileges.”
PMC officials say they will make some exceptions to allow visitors for delivering mothers, pediatric patients, ambulatory care and same day surgery patients, developmentally delayed adults and hospice/end-of-life care patients.
Eastern Idaho Public Health, which reported 161 new cases in Eastern Idaho on Friday, elevated Custer, Lemhi and Teton counties to the Moderate Risk level for this week and issued an order for face coverings and other restrictions in those counties. With Bonneville, Fremont, Jefferson and Madison counties already listed at Moderate Risk, EIPH only has one county in its coverage area that’s still considered to be Minimal Risk: Clark.
Local health officials have expressed frustrations about the rising number of cases and may even consider changing the region’s pandemic response plan, the Post Register reported.
“Unless people follow (the orders), they have no impact,” EIPH Director Geri Rackow said, according to the newspaper. “And I am honestly discouraged with the reception from people within our health district to voluntarily take those measures, and I’m very discouraged with our ability to enforce any of those measures that we’re taking.”
EIPH and Southeastern Idaho Public Health combined reported more than 1,100 new COVID-19 cases and six deaths over the past week.
Statewide there were 677 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday. There have been a total of 474 deaths in the state.
Idaho also released a new weekly summary of the virus’ impact on schools.
The report, which excludes online schools and those with less than 50 students, listed more than 50 new COVID-19 cases in Idaho schools between Sept. 25 and Oct. 1. At least 20 of those cases were associated with East Idaho schools.
The full report is available under the “Schools” tab at coronavirus.idaho.gov.