West Ada trustees

The West Ada School District’s board of trustees, Superintendent Mary Ann Ranells (bottom left) and clerk

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Starting Nov. 10, the West Ada School District will bring K-5 students back to in-person daily learning, though grades 6-12 will remain on an alternating day schedule with all-remote learning on Mondays; K-5 students will be released early Mondays.

The district board altered its reopening plan Tuesday night after seeking advice from medical experts and before Vice Chairman Steve Smylie formally announced his anticipated resignation from the board.

Additionally, Superintendent Mary Ann Ranells will now have authority to send schools with coronavirus clusters and outbreaks back to remote learning based on newly published school-specific case data published on the district website, westada.org. As part of the new plan administrators must work on options for parents to choose remote or in-person learning during the spring to address dissatisfaction with the multiple changes the board has made to its plan this school year.

The new plan is similar to one proposed by administrators and a team of five physicians who evaluated the district’s health and safety protocols. Headlined by doctor and former St. Luke’s Health System President and CEO David Pate, the original proposal would have kept fourth and fifth graders on a hybrid, alternating day schedule with an early release on Mondays since kids aged 10-12 appear to be more efficient at spreading the coronavirus. The board chose to treat elementary schools as one block after Pate said there’s no hard line for when kids become more efficient spreaders of the virus. Instead, children become more efficient spreaders gradually as they get older, he said.

That’s backed by West Ada’s first set of case data, which shows from Oct. 11–24, cases were highest in high schools — 11.81 high school students per 100,000 have tested positive for the virus. That’s more than double the 4.2 per 100,000 in middle schools and over triple the 2.8 per 100,000 in elementary schools.

Still, Pate acknowledged that teachers at younger grade levels struggle to get their kids to social distance when classrooms are full. That issue came up again in public testimony, which saw over a dozen teachers and parents voice competing concerns Tuesday night.

When Trustee Amy Johnson asked, “Can we legitimately get all kids back in school safely in your opinion?”

Pate quickly responded: “Today? No.”

Pate recommends closures on a school-by-school basis rather than districtwide. 

“While this approach doesn’t provide the beauty of a single objective number that can be measured, reported and followed, it avoids … another deterioration of the trust that is so important with our teachers if we establish a number and then change the guidelines again when that number is reached,” Pate said.

Others have echoed the refrain “red means remote" and have urged the district to determine a preset threshold of case spread at which the whole district would automatically go remote. The Idaho State Board of Education recommended that approach until last week, when it added a new "orange" category below "red" and lifted its recommendation that all classes be remote in counties in the "red" zone, Idaho Education News reported.

RESIGNATION

Smylie abstained from a series of votes on the school’s reopening plan before formally announcing his resignation, which Idaho Ed News reported on Friday.

“When adults fight, children lose,” he told the board. “I am proud of this district and I always will be, but no one was prepared for a pandemic, and it has turned into division …”

That division has surfaced in recent weeks: Trustee Ed Klopfenstein resigned his role as chairman. Teachers called in sick en masse to protest holding of in-person classes. Parents launched a lawsuit backed by the Idaho Freedom Foundation against the district union for organizing the sickout. An effort began to recall all five trustees.

When Klopfenstein stepped down as board leader, he said, “I’ve risked my business. I’ve risked my family,” and said he’d been experiencing “internal conflicts that I’ve had.”

Smylie projected the pressure on the board in his announcement, too.

“Every choice it seems now that I have as a trustee is inadequate … I know that (with) the stress on our household, my wife said she doesn’t even recognize me,” he said.

Smylie spent his career teaching in West Ada, the Boise School District and at Boise State University. He was a four-term Republican state legislator and is the son of late Gov. Robert Smylie. Steve Smylie ran unsuccessfully for superintendent of public instruction against Tom Luna in 2006.

Blake Jones covers Kuna and Meridian for the Idaho Press. You can reach him at bjones@idahopress.com and follow him on Twitter @jonesblakej.

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