Idaho State Capitol Building

Idaho State Capitol in Boise.

BOISE — When another pandemic strikes, who should have the power to close schools? Local school boards should, according to two bills passed by the Idaho Senate last week. The bills are en route to Gov. Brad Little to sign into law that take closure authority away from public health districts, putting it in the hands of local education jurisdictions.

“This is a local power discussion; it empowers local people,” said Dist. 7 Sen. Carl Crabtree (R, Grangeville).

This issue started last year with increased safety precautions enacted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, notably health districts issuing closure directives for schools within their jurisdictions. Crabtree noted this wasn’t a problem caused by the District 2 North Central District Health Department, based out of Lewiston, but was seen more with some others, such as in the northern District 1, which affects areas such as Sandpoint and Bonners Ferry. Constituents were watching what was happening with their neighbors in other part of the state, according to Crabtree, and were concerned it would happen in District 2.

“A lot of the hoo-hah was health districts making these decisions,” he said. “People thought it was unfair that unelected people should be telling elected school board members what to do, forcing them.”

As per the language in these bills, school districts would continue to consult with their respective health districts and make determinations on closures. The health districts would also retain the right to order quarantines in cases of infectious disease outbreaks.

“This is averting a problem more than solving one,” Crabtree said.

As the legislative session progresses, state officials have been put on notice a third round of federal CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act funds are tentative to be coming to Idaho in mid-March; between $1.2 to $1.3 billion is likely to be allocated.

“The good news,” said Crabtree, is these funds will have fewer strings attached — as far as usage — than prior CARES distributions. Also, a portion of these funds “cut out the middle man,” in funneling these monies through the state and will go directly to counties and cities. What the breakdown will be for these entities is as yet undetermined.

In an unrelated issue, Crabtree reported on a Senate Education Committee meeting regarding statewide testing.

“Kids in Idaho test at about the national average, at best,” Crabtree said, “but not too many parents send their kids to school hoping they’ll turn out average. So, what can we do better than that?”

The committee heard a presentation from Debbie Critchfield, president of the Idaho State Board of Education, regarding its work in finding testing assessments that can help better determine the issue with test scores: Is there a problem with the tests or the teaching system? One method showing some success is computer -oriented involving graphics and interaction to engage students more and better help them test.

“It’s really important to do a good job with testing,” he said, “because we need to know how we’re doing with educating students in Idaho. The money part is easy, but accountability on what we’re accomplishing, that’s harder.”

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