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Schools look back at spring of remote learning as school year ends

TWIN FALLS — Teachers and administrators have emphasized the importance of flexibility during their effort to educate from a distance.

All Idaho public schools were ordered closed through the end of the academic year by the State Board of Education in April due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, as an unprecedented school year comes to an end, schools are evaluating their remote learning plans. Twin Falls School District Director of Educational Technology and Operations Ryan Bowman said administrators were proactive in their plan to get resources to families.

“Our goal is to give a quality education to all students,” Bowman said. “Equal access is a huge deal for us to be able to realize that, and even more evident during a pandemic.”

Most students in Twin Falls accessed their coursework with devices sent home from their school. About 4,000 Chromebook laptops were checked out — the district has about 9,700 students. Bowman said many of those who did not receive a Chromebook already had a computer at home.

But devices are only practical for online learning if students and their families have access to the internet. The district worked to extend internet signals into school parking lots and install hotspots in low-income neighborhoods. It also worked with community partners to find free and low-cost internet services.

Bowman said part of providing access was also ensuring students and their parents could operate the devices they received. Schools sent home instructions with the Chromebooks and staff was on hand to help with problems that came up.

“We were very intentional with how we did that to help parents and make sure they had the tools they needed to help their students,” he said.

Bowman acknowledged that the district could not reach everyone, and the plan was not perfect but overall, they were able to provide materials to most students. Administrators also received feedback to refine their system next year if necessary.

Rural schools struggle with connectivity

Access to technology and the methods for providing remote instruction varied between districts.

Superintendent Tim Perrigot said connectivity was difficult in Wendell School District.

The main issue, he said, is the district simply did not have enough devices for students to use. Only about 40% of middle school students could check out a device, and elementary students worked entirely through paper packets put together by teachers.

Even in the high school, where enough devices were available, only about 80% could use them. The high school was able to extend its internet signal into the parking lot, but portable hotspots and free internet services for families would go a long way toward improving access, Perrigot said.

Some positives did come from the experience, he said. Communication with families was stronger than ever before, and teachers were able to maintain contact with students about their mental health. The district also learned of new resources and creative teaching methods.

Perrigot said he told staff from the beginning that there was a lot out of their control, but they could still control their attitude in response. He asked them to be flexible, to be creative, to document and to communicate.

“The overall experience and things that we learned will benefit our school district in the long run,” he said. “We learned what we already knew, that there’s nothing more powerful than a great teacher.”

Teaching from a distance

Teachers found a variety of new ways to offer instruction remotely and stay in contact with students and families.

Shannon Youngman, a fifth-grade teacher at Oregon Trail Elementary School in Twin Falls, sent out weekly newsletters and emails to parents with the plan for the week. Students were offered flexibility in choosing their lessons since they all learned in different home environments and had different experiences with technology, she said.

Many of her students used Chromebooks, though some relied on paper packets. Some students also switched between the two, depending on the lesson and what they were comfortable with.

Youngman said she tried to keep her class as consistent with a traditional setting as possible, and she found many familiar uses for technology. For instance, the system her class used for reading lessons allowed students to reread and annotate — strategies they would normally use with a print version. It also helped in the transition that her class had used the devices since the beginning of the year, she said.

Still, moving remotely presented challenges, she said. By the end of the year, teachers know their students well and can tell if they’re struggling with comprehension. Remote learning requires a bit more involvement from students in asking for help, she said.

But the closures also prompted new lessons and communication methods that Youngman said she may still continue when in-person instruction resumes. Some of the ideas even came from students themselves, she said.

“These things we maybe wouldn’t have thought of doing if we were in the classroom,” Youngman said. ”Students and staff kind of rose to the challenge.”

PHOTOS: Twin Falls seniors graduate

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'The ultimate equalizer': Loss of U.S. Postal Service due to COVID-19 would create hardship for Magic Valley communities

CASTLEFORD — It takes only about four people to fill the Castleford post office — an unassuming square building smack in the center of the town of fewer than 300 people. It’s not open long, just four hours from 9 a.m. to noon Monday to Friday, but it saves the residents of this tight-knit community the 20-minute drive to Buhl to send and receive mail and parcels.

But the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to change that. Low mail numbers and 13 years of consecutive losses totaling nearly $78 billion hit the self-funded government agency even before coronavirus, but the sharp plummeting of mail numbers during the pandemic means the postal service could run out of money by September.

This endangers nearly half a million jobs and millions more customers, especially those in rural communities who depend on the postal service for medications, important paperwork, ballots and checks.

“If (the community) did not have access to USPS it would make things difficult for them,” Kelsee Aagard, the postmaster for Castleford and Buhl, said. “If we were to shut down Castleford everyone in this community would have to drive to Buhl for their mail.”

Aagard is a 10-year employee of the U.S. Postal Service, who has been a carrier, a clerk and most recently a supervisor at the post office in Salt Lake City. She’s “done it all” and seen how the post office is vital to smaller communities, she said.


P.S.E. Clerk Sarah Ford talks about her job Thursday, May 21, 2020, at the United States Post Office in Castleford. Buhl and Castleford postmaster Kelsee Aagard said the post office in Castleford is vital to the community because of people like Ford who know what's going on in town and how to help.

A 20-minute drive to Buhl or any larger community from a small town may not sound burdensome but can add up for those already traveling long distances for food, gas and other necessities. The need for mail delivery sometimes goes beyond picking up parcels in Buhl or Twin Falls for Aagard’s customers.

“People can’t always go to the (Veterans Affairs Office) in Boise all the time,” Aagard said. “They’re getting medications delivered that they would have to travel for.”

The United States Postal Service asked for an $89 billion bailout to cover lost revenue, update infrastructure and unrestricted borrowing authority, among other needs, which was met with mixed responses from Congress and chastisement from President Donald Trump.

“As Congress and the Administration take steps to support businesses and industries around the country,” Megan Brennan, the outgoing Postmaster General, said in a statement following the request. “It is imperative that they also take action to shore up the finances of the Postal Service, and enable us to continue to fulfill our indispensable role during the pandemic, and to play an effective role in the nation’s economic recovery.”

The statement also said that the Postal Service faces a net operating loss of more than $22 billion over the next 18 months and $54 billion in long-term losses.

The president threatened to veto the entire $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act – also known as the Cares Act – in emergency funding if it contained relief for the Postal Service. The package originally contained a $13 billion grant for the Postal Service, which has since changed to a $10 billion loan from the Treasury Department that is pending approval.

President Trump said the loan would not be approved unless the Postal Service raised its shipping prices for big shippers like Amazon by about four times the current rate.

While support for the president’s plan is generally divided along party lines, Idaho lawmakers have yet to comment on the issue. Idaho State Sen. Bert Brackett, who lives 45 minutes outside of Rogerson, said that his constituents have “bigger things to worry about,” but a reduction in mail service would put a strain on the communities he represents.

“We, for the most part, have accepted it and worked with it,” Brackett said of his community receiving mail only three times a week. “(Losing service) would worry us a lot. That would bring such a hardship to this community.”


P.S.E. Clerk Sarah Ford shows off the different stamps for sale Thursday, May 21, 2020, at the United States Post Office in Castleford. The U.S. Postal Service faces $22 billion in net losses in the next 18 months due in part to dropping mail volume during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For Twin Falls County’s southernmost communities, the closest post office is in Jackpot, Nevada, as opposed to Twin Falls, which is 60 miles away.

Services like the United Parcel Service and FedEx don’t often serve communities like Three Creek or Castleford and rely on the local post office to provide “last mile service” for packages mailed through such private services to reach their final destination. UPS leaves about 75 packages a day with the Buhl post office to reach smaller surrounding communities, Aagard said.

The Postal Service Western Area, which services Idaho, Utah, Nevada and 11 other states, could not comment on the status of the federal loan or the potential fate of the Postal Service, but it maintained that it is a vital service for millions of Americans.

“When you spread a map out in front of you and look at all those dots, we serve every one of them,” David Rupert, manger of strategic communications for the Western Area, said in a phone interview. “We connect America. We are the ultimate equalizer.”

“Whether you’re urban, suburban, rural, unincorporated, rich or poor, everyone gets the same great service.”


Resident mail boxes wait to be accessed Thursday, May 21, 2020, at the United States Post Office in Castleford. Private shippers like UPS and FedEx don't go to places like Castleford, so the Postal Service acts as a connector between delivery services and residents. Buhl post office receives about 75 packages a day from private shippers to be delivered to the surrounding areas.

A local post office can also serve as a community center for residents who may not often see each other in areas where homes are spread out. Aagard said customers at the Castleford office meet and “don’t want to leave” when they see a familiar face. Each year hundreds of postal workers alert authorities to danger, including spotting fires on their routes and finding injured people in their homes when carriers notice mail piling up, Rupert said.

“(Our clerk in Castleford), she’s a member of this community,” Aagard said. “She knows what’s going on and how to help out.”

While there may always be a way to receive mail and packages, Rupert said that only the extensive connectivity the Postal Service offers is unmatched.

“For the price of a stamp, for two quarters and a nickel, you can reach every dot on that map,” he said. “And that’s something only we can provide.”

PHOTOS: The future of the post office

Burley's 34th Spudman Triathlon on July 25 cancelled due to COVID-19 concerns

BURLEY — The Burley Lions Club Spudman Committee made the decision to cancel its 34th Spudman Triathlon on July 25 due to possible community spread of COVID-19.

Mike Tilley, one of the race directors for the event said they weighed the $3.5 million economic impact of the event with the health risks associated with the virus before making the decision.

The race had drawn its capacity of 2,300 athletes who registered for the event and they will all be given full refunds, he said.

The feedback from athletes so far, he said, has been very positive.

“Given that this decision is being made due to the health risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, we approached the decision from a health perspective. It wasn’t an accounting question, so we did not consult with accountants and it wasn’t a sports question so we did not consult with athletes. It wasn’t a political question, so we did not consult with politicians,” said Tilley.

Tilley said the committee spoke with health care professionals they knew personally.

“There was not a single health care provider that we talked to that did not emphasize the seriousness of this virus,” Tilley said. “It’s real and it’s infectious. There is a lot of speculation about the virus but we were not comfortable having our race based on speculation.”

Tilley said the committee waited as long as it could before making the decision.

Athletes had registered from 27 states, and most of them generally bring family and friends with them to the race, which draws 5,000 spectators.

“It could be a COVID disaster for our area,” he said.

Alice Schenk, of Paul, said as an athlete she is sad the race is canceled.

“But, I’m in favor of their decision,” she said. “They did their research. and I believe it is in the best interest of our community.”

PHOTOS: Spudman Triathlon
PHOTOS: Hundreds compete in Spudman Triathlon
Gallery: Spudman Triathlon draws thousands to the area

FILE - In this May 11, 2015, file photo, nuclear waste is stored in underground containers at the Idaho National Laboratory near Idaho Falls, Idaho. Scientists say radioactive and chemical contamination in a giant aquifer below an eastern Idaho federal nuclear facility has decreased or remained constant in recent years. A report released earlier this year by the U.S. Geological Survey attributes the decreases to radioactive decay, changes in waste-disposal methods, cleanup efforts and dilution from water coming into the Lake Erie-sized Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer. The contamination originated at an 890-square-mile (2305-square-kilometer) U.S. Department of Energy site that includes the Idaho National Laboratory, considered the nation’s leading nuclear research lab. (AP Photo/Keith Ridler, File)

Maskless Trump tours plant

YPSILANTI TOWNSHIP, Mich. — Pandemic politics shadowed President Donald Trump’s trip to Michigan on Thursday as he highlighted lifesaving medical devices, with the president and officials from the electoral battleground state clashing over federal aid, mail-in ballots and face masks.

Trump visited Ypsilanti, outside Detroit, to tour a Ford Motor Co. factory that had been repurposed to manufacture ventilators, the medical breathing machines governors begged for during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But his visit came amid a long-running feud with the state’s Democratic governor and a day after the president threatened to withhold federal funds over the state’s expanded vote-by-mail effort. And, again, the president did not publicly wear a face covering despite a warning from the state’s top law enforcement officer that a refusal to do so might lead to a ban on his return.

Meanwhile, signs of renewed business activity are surfacing across the country as states gradually reopen economies and some businesses call a portion of their laid-off staffers back to work. Yet with millions more Americans seeking unemployment aid last week, the U.S. job market remains as bleak as it’s been in decades.

More than 2.4 million laid-off workers filed for jobless benefits last week, the government said Thursday, the ninth straight week of outsize figures since the viral outbreak forced millions of businesses to closer their doors and shrink their workforces.

And while the number of weekly applications has slowed for seven straight weeks, they remain immense by any historical standard — roughly 10 times the typical figure that prevailed before the virus struck. Nearly 39 million people have applied for benefits since mid-March.

“There is little evidence that the reopening of the economy has, as yet, led to any sudden snap back in employment,” said Paul Ashworth, an economist at Capital Economics.

In Michigan, all of the Ford executives giving Trump the tour were wearings masks, the president stood alone without one. At one point, he did take a White House-branded mask from his pocket and said to reporters he had worn it elsewhere on the tour, out of public view.

“I did not want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it,” Trump said.

For a moment, he also teasingly held up a clear shield in front of his face. A statement from Ford said that Bill Ford, the company’s executive chairman, “encouraged President Trump to wear a mask when he arrived” and said the president wore it during “a private viewing of three Ford GTs from over the years” before removing it.

The United Auto Workers union noted in a statement that “some in his entourage’” declined face masks and said “it is vitally important that our members continue to follow the protocols that have been put in place to safeguard them, their families and their communities.”

The UAW also noted Trump’s statement that he had just been tested for the virus and said it wanted to make sure he understood the wider “need for an economical instant test that can be administered daily to further protect our members — and all Americans.”

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said that mask wearing isn’t just Ford’s policy but it’s also the law in a state that’s among those hardest hit by the virus. Nessel said that if Trump refused to wear a mask Thursday “he’s going to be asked not to return to any enclosed facilities inside our state” and “we’re going to have to take action” against any company that allows it in the future.

Trump has refused to wear a face mask in public, telling aides he believes it makes him look weak, though it is a practice that federal health authorities say all Americans should adopt to help slow the spread of the virus.

Ford said everyone in its factories must wear personal protective equipment, including masks, and that its policy had been communicated to the White House. At least two people who work in the White House and had been physically close to Trump recently tested positive for the virus.

Earlier Thursday, Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell huddled at the White House as Republicans stake out new plans to phase out coronavirus-related unemployment benefits to encourage Americans to go back to work.

Revamping jobless aid is fast becoming the focus of debate over the next virus aid package. After the Senate decided to take a “pause” on new pandemic proposals, senators faced mounting pressure to act before leaving town for a weeklong Memorial Day break. The Senate also began efforts to fast-track an extension of a popular small business lending program.

“Republicans and the White House are reaching consensus on the need for redesigning the unemployment benefits so they are not a barrier to getting people back to work,” Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, the top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, told reporters on a conference call.

The flurry of activity comes after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushed a new $3 trillion aid package through the House last week. The Senate, under McConnell, says there is no urgency to act, and senators are expected to reconsider more aid in June.

Over 5 million people worldwide have been confirmed infected by the virus, and about 330,000 deaths have been recorded, including about 94,000 in the U.S., according to a tally kept by Johns Hopkins University.