Over the past few months, many school districts across the Treasure Valley announced plans to make masks optional for students and teachers in the classroom at the start of the upcoming academic year.
Districts were hoping, largely, for a return to normalcy.
But now, as coronavirus cases start to rise again in Idaho and the country grapples with the spread of the more transmissible delta variant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has once again revised its guidance.
The CDC now recommends “universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to schools, regardless of vaccination status” and masking for fully vaccinated people indoors in “areas of substantial or high transmission.”
“Children should return to full-time in-person learning in the fall with proper prevention strategies in place,” the guidance said.
Central District Health, which covers Ada County, issued a statement Tuesday in support of the CDC’s recommendation for schools.
“Universal indoor masking is recommended for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccine status or community transmission,” according to the Central District Health statement.
The updated national guidance marks a shift from just weeks earlier, when the CDC recommended masks for only people who weren’t fully vaccinated in schools.
The Boise School District said Tuesday it is still analyzing the new guidance.
“We just received this new guidance and need time to review it,” said Dan Hollar, public affairs administrator with the Boise School District, in an email. “We will be meeting with our local health care partners to discuss this new guidance further and its potential impact on our COVID-19 Response Plan.”
Earlier this month, the district’s board of trustees approved a COVID-19 response plan for the 2021-22 school year, making masks optional for students and staff. Under the district’s plan, those who are unvaccinated are still encouraged to wear masks, but that decision is ultimately up to them.
In West Ada, the district’s board in June voted to remove the mask requirement from its student handbook for the 2021-2022 school year. The district over the last several months of school had faced many calls from members of the community to remove its mask mandate.
Shortly before the guidance came out Tuesday morning, Superintendent Derek Bub told the Idaho Statesman in a video interview the district had confidence in its plan going into the new year — though he was not responding directly to the updated guidance.
“We’re excited about the prospect of what the fall looks like for us,” he said. “We worked with our board and we feel very confident in the processes that we have in place to be able to make decisions on masks on a school-by-school basis depending on the spread.”
The district, he said, looks at spread of the virus frequently and will analyze whether different safety measures, such as a mask mandate, need to be put into effect based on spread within a school. Because the district covers such a vast area, Bub said addressing the issue on a school-by-school basis is the most effective way to limit the spread.
“We feel very confident in our ability to keep kids safe while they’re in schools,” he said. “And I don’t see us changing direction for a mask mandate district wide.”
In Nampa, the district’s board voted to remove its mask mandate earlier this year as well. Kathleen Tuck, director of communications and community relations for the district, said the board will meet again in mid-August, but they have not yet set an agenda for that meeting.
“For now, we will be following the back-to-school plan they approved at the July meeting,” she said in an email.
It’s not yet clear whether other districts will revise their guidelines for the upcoming year to once again require masks in the classroom. Currently, COVID-19 vaccines are not authorized for kids under 12, meaning the virus could have more opportunities to spread in schools.
School districts in Idaho are not planning to require the COVID-19 vaccines for students 12 and older, according to the current immunization requirements for kids entering school.
Kids under 18 in Idaho have the lowest rates of vaccination among age groups in the state. Among kids 12-15, 20% have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and among those 16-17, 30% have, according to data from the state.
Most school districts in Idaho also don’t have plans for a vaccine mandate for teachers or staff, Quinn Perry, policy and government affairs director for the Idaho School Boards Association, told the Idaho Statesman earlier this month.
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.