BOISE — Idaho will remain in the fourth and final stage of a plan to reopen for at least another two weeks as coronavirus infections and deaths show little sign of slowing down, Gov. Brad Little said Thursday.
The Republican governor also reemphasized his desire that schools open this fall, though he said that would be up to local school districts.
Little said the state has sufficient healthcare workers, personal protection equipment, ventilators and ICU beds. He also noted the state was making some progress with declining infection rates and other criteria.
Little emphasized the millions being spent to make sure schools can safely reopen, including $10 million for additional masks, gloves, sanitizer and separation glass.
“The expectation is that schools will not be closed for extended periods of time during the ’20-21 academic year,” Little said at a news conference. “I genuinely understand the deep concern of some teachers and parents about returning to school for in-person instruction.”
The state will also spend another $21 million on COVID-19 testing for teachers and school staff. Another $6 million will be used to speed the testing results for teachers, staff and families in rural Idaho. He also said $48 million will be used to equip schools with computers and connectivity for remote learning,
Little and education officials are seeking to balance the risks of spreading the virus by reopening schools with the hardships they said some students will face if schools only offer remote learning.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra said a remote-learning only strategy would cause some students to lose ground academically and cause others to suffer emotional issues due to the isolation. She also said for some students, schools are the only places where they can get a nutritional meal.
“We know that it’s the teacher in the classroom that has the biggest impact on student learning,” she said. “This is a scary time, I get that, but we are being responsible in making personal protective equipment available to our schools.”
She said “barrels” of free hand sanitizer as well as free face masks are being distributed.
Both Little and Ybarra said school districts would be making the call on opening based on local conditions, but both emphasized a preference to open. He noted some rural parts of the state have few infections.
The state progressed from Little’s stay-at-home order than ended April 30 through reopening stages at two-week intervals. But the state has been stalled in stage 4 for more than a month.
According to Johns Hopkins University, there were nearly 23,000 infections and 217 deaths in the state through Wednesday.
Idaho has seen some improvement in the last several weeks. Notably, the seven-day rolling average of the positivity rate in Idaho was 15.98% through Tuesday, a drop from 20.45% on July 22, according to The COVID Tracking Project. But among states and including Puerto Rico, that still makes Idaho seventh-worst in the nation.
The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested. Studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.
Little earlier this week said he would call the part-time Legislature back into a special session later this month. New legislation could include how to conduct the November election. The special session could also include legislation creating a liability shield to protect schools, businesses and government entities from lawsuits during declared emergencies such as the pandemic.
A special session would require 105 lawmakers from around the state to gather at the Statehouse in Boise, one of the areas where infections have been highest.
Little said Thursday he wasn’t aware of any lawmakers testing positive for COVID-19. Some lawmakers have said the pandemic is a hoax and face coverings an infringement of their rights.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. But for some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.