Sen. Steven Thayn screenshot

Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, speaks during a meeting of the Legislature’s Joint Education Working Group on Monday, Aug. 10, 2020.

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The Legislature’s education working group has just voted to strip Idaho’s public health districts of the ability to order closure of schools in public health emergencies, or to order preventive measures such as masks. The panel, consisting of the House and Senate Education committees, voted to recommend that Gov. Brad Little put the change on the agenda for the upcoming Aug. 24 special session of the Legislature, but it was hardly a consensus – the Senate panel split 5-4 and the House vote was party-line.

Little has told lawmakers he'll call a special session only on consensus proposals.

Rep. Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth, a retired school district superintendent, said, “The administrators that I talk to really, really want this bill. They’re really concerned about their ability to govern and having somebody looking over their shoulder.”

He noted that Idaho’s seven public health district boards consist of elected county commissioners from each county in the district plus a medical professional, but said patrons of a school district have no way to hold accountable a medical professional or a commissioner from a neighboring county, as they do with local elected school board members. Health districts, he said, should be “in an advisory role, not in a governance role. We have elected school board members who are given the role and duty of governing schools.”

Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, spoke out in favor of the move. “One of the things that I have heard in this pandemic that has bothered me is that there’s a lot of people who are willing to go back to school, go back to work, and yet we’re letting a few fearful people control the lives of those people who are not fearful,” he said.

“Listening to experts to set policy is an elitist approach,” Thayn said. “I’m also fearful that it leads to totalitarianism, especially when you say well, we’re doing it for the public good. America was founded on the idea that people weighed their own risks, did what they thought was best for their own interests. … The role of experts should be to give us the best information they have, and we should weigh it. They should never set policy.”

Rep. Steve Berch, D-Boise, argued against the move. He said he was “really struggling with this notion of individuals making decisions on what they think is in their best interest without any concern” for the consequences it has on other members of the community. “I think it’s just unconscionable to not shut a school down if there is an outbreak of meningitis,” Berch said.

“This is a governance issue, but it’s also a public health issue as well,” he said, “and at some point we’re going to have to decide if we’re going to trust people who have expertise in these areas. … If there’s an outbreak of measles, meningitis, something else, you need to trust medical professionals to know what the right thing is to do right now.”

Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, said, “Our school boards are definitely engaged … and to somehow suggest that our school boards would somehow not have the best interests of the true stakeholders, and the true stakeholders are the students and the parents. … They need to be able to go to the people that are closest to them, and that would be the school boards.”

Thayn said, “There still is the ability to quarantine individuals that have infectious diseases. What we’re talking about in this COVID is quarantining everyone when they’re not sick and taking away the ability of people who feel like they’re not particularly susceptible to becoming sick that they have to be quarantined also. … We can still quarantine with this law those that are sick.”

He added, “I have moms and grandmas that are crying about their kids not being able to go back to school. In some ways right now public schools are driving kids away by requiring masks. I think 10-30% of the kids might not show up. They’ll be looking to find another option. So this is one thing that local school districts can do to address the needs of their patrons, and this is just a tool they really need in their toolbox.”

Kerby, whose original proposal included a clause still allowing public health districts to close schools in an emergency, while otherwise restricting health districts to an advisory role, didn’t object to a motion from Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, removing that clause about emergencies. He voted in favor of Boyle’s substitute motion, saying he’d vote for any motion that would pass.

Boyle said, “The boards can meet quickly, and if there’s a major problem, they don’t want their school open. … I think we’re just opening the door for public health districts back up again” by including that clause in the proposal. Her substitute motion is the one that carried in the joint working group.

The Senate portion of the vote was 5-4; those voting in favor were Sens. Mortimer, Thayn, Winder, Den Hartog and Lent; those against were Sens. Crabtree, Woodward, Buckner-Webb and Ward-Engelking.

The House portion was 11-3, with all Republican members voting in favor and all Democratic members voting against.

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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