Students in Idaho’s largest school district won’t have to wear masks in the fall

·3 min read

Students in the West Ada School District won’t be required to wear masks in the classroom next academic year.

The West Ada Board of Trustees has voted unanimously to remove the mask requirement from its student handbook for the 2021-22 school year.

“Masks are just one of the safety protocols currently used within our schools to mitigate the spread of the virus,” incoming Superintendent Derek Bub said during Tuesday’s school board meeting. “We continue to expect to use other mitigating recommendations throughout our schools next year.”

Trustees had already voted to make masks optional for summer school. Starting Thursday, masks will now be optional for the few elementary schools with a modified schedule that are still in session.

The board also approved an update to the district’s Pandemic Operating Plan to say the superintendent ultimately has the “authority to make operational decisions, if necessary, to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” which could include putting into place a mask mandate.

Over the past year, masks have been required in the classroom to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in schools.

The decision to continue requiring masks in the district for the year prompted pushback from some parents, who argued their families should be able to make their own decisions on masks. Others have advocated for masks in the classroom as a safety measure to prevent the spread of the virus. Public health officials have largely viewed masks as an effective tool to slow the spread of the virus.

At the board meeting Tuesday, several people showed up in yellow shirts, many of which bore the slogan, “Smile West Ada.”

“We are thrilled beyond words that we finally have achieved our objective to make masks optional,” David Binetti, who created the Smile West Ada group, told the Idaho Statesman.

He said students should be able to make their own decisions about mask wearing.

“There were no solutions in the pandemic, there were only trade-offs,” he said. “We wanted to look at the entire educational experience, and masks impact that.”

During the meeting, Trustee Ed Klopfenstein asked about younger students specifically, who don’t yet have the option to get vaccinated. Coronavirus vaccines have been approved only for children 12 and older.

In Idaho, only 25.3% of 16- and 17-year-olds and 14.4% of 12-to-15-year-olds have received at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine. Idaho’s vaccination of the eligible population is 15 percentage points below the national average.

Students do have the option to learn remotely, and there are other mitigation steps the district is taking, Bub said.

“Also within those classrooms, it’s much easier than at the middle school or high school level to be able to pod those classes and keep those kids closer together, so there’s not the transition points that you see in the middle schools and high schools,” he said. “So yes, it’s part of our operational plan, and we will keep a close eye on it, but we feel very comfortable with the recommendation.”

Trustees also talked about the low numbers of COVID-19 cases reported in schools in the district in recent weeks. According to data from the West Ada School District, there were no reported cases last week or this week. However, many youth cases have not been reported to schools.

At the end of the discussion Tuesday, Chair Amy Johnson celebrated what she hoped would be the end of the talk about masks in schools.

“We may not have to talk about masks ever again at the board level,” she said.

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.

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