A science teacher at Jenifer Middle School expressed concerns over an “unsafe work environment” at a Lewiston School Board meeting Monday evening and criticized the school district’s lack of safety precautions against COVID-19.

Alex Church, who works with seventh graders, said the end of social distancing and mask protocols in school buildings this year is irresponsible while unchecked transmission of the virus pushes local hospitals beyond capacity.

He fears the failure to confront the pandemic in a meaningful way may deepen the crisis.

“Our local hospital system is essentially begging the community to help them,” Church said. “I struggle to see how anyone will trust us as an authority on education when they watch us ignore the repeated requests of our health care professionals.”

The school district reported 29 active cases of COVID-19 in students and staff on Monday, just two weeks into the school year.

Hospitalizations from the virus are steadily increasing at St. Joseph Regional Medical Center, where a record-high 20 patients were hospitalized Monday. Last week, it reported 13 hospitalizations.

In a plea for safety precautions across the school district, Church asked the school board to mandate masks for staff and, at the very least, strongly recommend them for students. He also requested in-house testing be available to students and staff.

“We are doing no social distancing,” Church said. “Masks are not even recommended or available as a matter of policy. Staff and students must specifically seek them out.”

Last week, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare authorized hospitals in northern Idaho to implement crisis standards of care, allowing facilities to ration their resources amid overwhelming caseloads.

At Kootenai Health in Coeur d’Alene, a teaching room was recently converted into a care unit to accommodate excess patients.

“The concern to the public is very real,” said Brad Cuddy, vice president of the school board. “I want to be sure if I walk into a school building, there’s somewhere right at that entrance where masks and hand sanitizer are available for the kids and staff.”

But when Superintendent Lance Hansen was asked if masks and other resources are readily available in most school buildings, the answer was unclear. However, he said there’s “plenty of personal protective equipment for everyone.”

Church, who previously noted some buildings have no available masks, silently shook his head from a seat in the audience. The former Webster Elementary School principal said many students are currently out of school racking up absences while they quarantine for exposure to someone with COVID-19.

Hansen also confirmed attendance has declined since the start of the school year Aug. 30. At the meeting, school board members voted to declare September as Attendance Awareness Month.

“I’ve had multiple students who are already on what they call ‘extended absences,’” Church said. “Trying to catch a student up who is gone for 5-10 days is nearly impossible. In many cases, we just have to write off the learning and move on to the next standard.”

Still, no mask orders or other strategies were adopted by school board members Monday night. In response to an increased need for testing, Hansen said he plans to order 100 PCR tests, which students or staff could complete at home for faster results.

On the other side of the border in Washington, Clarkston teachers and students must wear masks indoors, and staff members are facing an Oct. 18 deadline to be fully vaccinated.

Palermo may be contacted at apalermo@lmtribune.com. Follow her on Twitter @apalermotweets.

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