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In a press conference on July 9, Gov. Brad Little announced that Idaho’s K-12 students will return to public school classrooms in the fall, despite the growing number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Idaho.

“We want our students back and we want our economy to rebound as quickly as possible,” Little said. “Our single actions are the single most important thing we can do to make this happen.”

Two weeks prior to the press conference, the Gem State had not met the requirements to advance beyond Stage IV of its staged economic reopening. Concurrently, Central District Health downgraded much of the Treasure Valley to Stage III. Just a few days into July, Idaho has seen more confirmed cases than any previous week since coronavirus was declared a national public health emergency in January.

Little, Superintendent of Public Instruction Sheri Ybarra and members of the Idaho State Board of Education said they are looking ahead to the fall, with an education plan called Idaho Back to School Framework. The Idaho Board of Education approved the framework concurrently with the governor’s press conference.

“The key to success this fall will be that parents and students have choices and options for their learning based on what's best for their situation,” Ybarra said.

The plan relies on a $30 million allocation to public education by the governor to support opening schools for in-person education. Ybarra said that the money will be used to buy technology that will aid in a blended learning style of education, in which students receive instruction from a mixture of online and face-to-face interaction.

Until recently, the question of whether students would return to classrooms in the fall pressed on policymakers. The framework provided the governor and Ybarra settled that question, though it does not mandate particular actions on the parts of schools or school districts. Rather, it’s a set of recommendations. Masks and social distancing will be strongly advised, but not required. Each school will be free to set its own policies in order to keep students safe.

“We’ve outlined recommended procedures based on the level of coronavirus transmission occurring in various communities across the state at any given time, and we’ve listed the procedures by category,” State Board President Debbie Critchfield wrote in a July 9 press release from the Idaho State Board of Education. “For instance, a school located in a Category 1 area where there is no community spread occurring can use this framework as guidance on how to open the school. On the other hand, a school located in a Category 3 area where there is substantial community spread will see suggested considerations for school board decision making.”

In early May, a plan was set forward by Little, calling for a cut to K-12 public education funding by nearly $90 million, but the number of COVID-19 cases in June made evident the need for funding of Idaho’s education system if it is to open in the fall. The sudden onset of the pandemic in Idaho created what Little characterized as an achievement “gap” that required additional funds to bridge. According to Education Week, Idaho currently spends $8,422 per K-12 student, well below the national average of $12,526, making its spending per student the second-lowest in the nation.

“The pandemic has exacerbated this gap and poses a potential ongoing disruption to our state's momentum on many different fronts—from early literacy and college and career readiness, to addressing our students' overall well-being,” Little said.

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