The Idaho State Board of Education unanimously mandated a “soft closure” Monday of all K-12 school districts in the state through at least April 20, although that may be extended.

During a special meeting, board members approved a document focused on the state’s COVID-19 response within public education. The school operation guidance document was developed by Gov. Brad Little’s K-12 Emergency Council.

A “soft closure” means students will not be permitted in classrooms, but school districts are expected to provide education and essential services to the best of their abilities during the extended time frame.

According to Greg Wilson, the governor’s senior education policy adviser, essential services include providing food to underserved populations and child care for community members who provide critical services, developing and implementing plans for remote or distance learning strategies, and crafting a plan to provide special education-related services.

“I think it’s important to emphasize that this is a date that is not set in concrete or carved in marble,” said board member Emma Atchley, who stated the board will revisit the closure timeline.

The State Board of Education will work with Idaho’s public health officials and the governor’s K-12 Emergency Council to develop criteria that districts and charter schools can use to inform their reopening decisions, if they decide to extend the closure on their own.

The board also took actions to waive certain high school graduation requirements for the 2019-20 school year, like senior projects, and taking both the college entrance exam and Idaho Standards Achievement Test.

“Today’s board action is a first step toward alleviating some of the pressure our districts are experiencing,” Board President Debbie Critchfield said. “Local administrators and boards are working around the clock to manage this crisis. They are dealing with a lot, and we don’t want them to worry about state rules. This guidance is intended to give them more time to focus on priority services outlined by the board and the Governor’s K-12 Emergency Council.”

Critchfield said the board also encourages the state’s school districts to continue the employment of classified staff, like paraprofessionals and custodians.

That means school districts may have to find creative ways to keep those people employed through the closure, according to Critchfield.

The board plans to host weekly meetings during the soft closure, and possibly beyond the April 20 date, to stay abreast of the situation.

Although none of the actions were aimed at higher education, board members praised the state’s institutions for the actions they have taken during the pandemic. That includes moving in-person classes online, as well as canceling graduation ceremonies.

“We’re here to address K-12 specifically, but not calling out the tremendous amount of work that’s been accomplished in higher education would be a misstep on my part,” Critchfield said.

The Lewiston School District will hold a special meeting at noon Wednesday to reaffirm the state board’s direction.

Justyna Tomtas may be reached at jtomtas@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2294. Follow her on Twitter @jtomtas.

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