School districts in the Treasure Valley are reporting increasing numbers of positive COVID-19 cases among students and staff as the highly contagious omicron variant spreads rapidly across Idaho.
Over the past few weeks since students returned to the classroom after winter break, the Boise and West Ada school districts have reported hundreds of positive cases.
Several schools and districts across Idaho have closed temporarily due to the spread of COVID-19, and high numbers of students and teachers are out sick.
Dr. David Peterman, pediatrician and the CEO of Primary Health Medical Group, said the positivity rate among children 18 and younger tested by Primary Health has doubled over the past 14-18 days. It’s a trend seen across the entire community, not only in children.
“I’ve been involved with coronavirus since the beginning, and we’ve never seen anything like this,” Peterman told the Idaho Statesman.
School districts report spikes in COVID-19 cases
The Boise School District reported 510 cases last week from Jan. 10 to Jan. 16, the first week students returned from winter break. More than 50 employees tested positive last week, spokesperson Dan Hollar said in an email. This week, the district has already reported more than 250 positive cases.
The West Ada School District reported more than 700 cases among students and staff from Jan. 9 to Jan. 15, according to its dashboard. The district data reflects only those who were infectious while attending in-person school.
In the Nampa School District, there were 225 cases reported during the week of Jan. 9 to Jan. 15, including 45 employees.
Before winter break, most school districts were reporting decreasing numbers of positive COVID-19 cases. But school districts across the Treasure Valley have little consistency in how they are reporting cases, and Peterman cautioned that the reporting systems are “only as good as the willingness to report.”
Not all students who are exposed to the virus or have symptoms will get tested, he said, so those numbers don’t necessarily reflect how quickly the virus is spreading.
Over the past seven days, Primary Health tested 1,526 children 12 and younger. The positivity rate among that group was 36%, Peterman said. For the 990 kids tested ages 6-12, the positivity rate was 39%. Among the 1,153 children 13-18 who were tested, the positivity rate reached 40%.
Those percentages are also likely lower than the real rate, Peterman said, due to false negatives.
The number of children being tested has also doubled.
“It’s not surprising,” he said. “Without universal masking, omicron spreads like wildfire.”
School COVID-19 cases reflect community, pediatrician says
Peterman warned of the many consequences that could come from the significant surge in COVID-19, both in schools and in the community. It’s important not to think of the number of cases in schools or among children in a vacuum, he said.
“To talk about children and schools in isolation misses the overall impact on our whole community,” Peterman said.
When children are exposed to COVID-19 or test positive, they can then spread it to their families. Parents may have to call out of work, figure out how to get tested and navigate their school’s specific quarantine and isolation policies.
The spread of the virus puts further strain on health care workers. Peterman said. Primary Health has had to close some of its urgent care clinics temporarily.
He also pointed to a lack of consistency in the mitigation measures school districts are following. The Boise School District has had a mask mandate in place since the beginning of the year. The Caldwell School District recently put into place a temporary mask mandate after having to close all schools in the district for two days due to COVID-19. Other school districts, such as West and Nampa, don’t require masks and have few other mitigation protocols in place.
The different rules make it confusing and, at times, difficult for parents to understand the policies of their schools or districts.
With the lack of consistency on mitigation measures in schools, “it’s very difficult to feel safe or to feel like we’ll be OK,’ Peterman said. “I don’t think we’ll be OK. The fact that not all school districts are requiring masks indoors will just encourage more spreading.”
Schools have already closed, and more closures could be coming as the virus infects more teachers and staff members. The additional disruptions, Peterman said, will again take a toll on children’s mental health. The American Academy of Pediatrics last year declared a national state of emergency in children’s mental health.
Becca Savransky covers education for the Idaho Statesman in partnership with Report for America. The position is partly funded through community support. Click here to donate.