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Twin Falls, Buhl school districts considering changes to mask policy
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Twin Falls, Buhl school districts considering changes to mask policy

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The Service Bowl

Twin Falls students watch the Service Bowl on Friday night, Sept. 11, at Canyon Ridge High School in Twin Falls. To stop the spread of disease, fans are encouraged to wear face masks while in attendance of a game. 

TWIN FALLS — As COVID-19 case numbers continue to drop in the Magic Valley, some school districts are reconsidering their policies for wearing face coverings. But health officials say it is too soon to drop mask requirements in schools.

The Twin Falls School District recently conducted a survey seeking input from parents, students and staff on the district’s mask requirement. The district’s school board will review these results and make a decision about whether to change this policy during its Wednesday meeting.

The Buhl School District is planning to conduct a similar survey this week. This comes after a school board meeting earlier this month, during which multiple parents and students urged the district to reconsider its mask policy.

“We’d like to finish the school year as normal and traditional as possible,” Interim Superintendent Wil Overgaard told the Times-News. “If we can do that by maintaining mitigation, great. If we change those strategies and continue to see low numbers, I’m fine with that too.”

Dr. Frank Batcha, a family medicine physician and former chief of staff of St. Luke’s Wood River, said the decision to drop mask requirements is not rooted in science. He noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently updated its COVID-19 recommendations for schools, reducing its social distancing guidance from 6 feet to 3 feet in classrooms. However, the recommendation for “universal and correct use of masks” remains in place.

According to the CDC, studies have shown that COVID-19 transmission within in schools is lower than in the broader community. And when outbreaks do occur in school, they tend to affect teachers and staff more than students.

But this doesn’t mean there’s no risk among younger people, Batcha said. Especially because, while teachers are able to receive a vaccine, the vast majority of students cannot. The Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are authorized for people 18 and older, and the Pfizer vaccines is approved for people 16 and older.

“With younger people, it does seem the risk of transmission is diminished, but it’s not zero,” Batcha said. “I think it’s some shaky ground to be instituting a directive such as this.”

While the Twin Falls and Buhl school districts are considering these changes, some other districts in the Magic Valley have already ended their mask requirements.

During a special meeting held March 19, the Jerome School District’s school board voted 4-1 to end the district’s mask requirement. Students and staff are now recommended to wear masks, rather than required to do so.

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During the meeting, Superintendent Dale Layne said the district’s COVID-19 numbers are significantly down from where they once were. According to data from the district’s website, the district identified 144 positive cases during the first half of the school year, but only 12 case since classes resumed from winter break in January.

Board member Esther Peters, who voted against changing the mask policy, attributed these results to the mitigation measures the district has in place. She told the board the district could risk seeing increases in the number of students missing out on class, graduation or sporting events with this change in policy.

Board chair Staci Leavitt said she supported the change and noted that many of the teachers within the district have been vaccinated or have the ability to sign up for the vaccine. The school district held a vaccination clinic in January, during which hundreds of staff members received the vaccine.

Like Jerome, the Twin Falls and Buhl school districts have seen decreases in their number of positive COVID-19 cases since January. For example, Overgaard said, since returning from winter break, the district has confirmed 12 positive cases with no cases being identified since early February.

This is down from last fall when the district experienced a surge in cases the week before Thanksgiving that resulted in 18 staff members and more than 50 students quarantining at home after testing positive or coming in close contact with somebody who had tested positive.

The low number of COVID-19 cases seen in schools is reflective of what’s taking place in the broader community. In its most recent regional risk summary released last Thursday, the South Central Public Health District assigned all eight of the counties within its jurisdiction as having a minimal risk level for COVID-19.

Brianna Bodily, the district’s public information officer, said the district is recording about 15 new cases per day, which is the lowest this number has been for the region since last April. This is way down from where the district’s peak, when, during a stretch from October through the beginning of December, it often recorded between 100 and 300 cases per day.

But even with the region reaching this minimal risk category, the health district is concerned that loosening mitigation measures could lead to a quick increase in positive COVID-19 cases. Eastern Idaho, for example, experienced in an uptick in cases two weeks ago that resulted in Idaho Falls and Rexburg becoming two of the worst COVID-19 hot spots in the country.

The health district is also concerned that several surrounding health districts have identified COVID-19 variants that are known to spread rapidly, Bodily said. The South Central Public Health District has not identified a confirmed a case of one of these variants in the Magic Valley yet, but it’s possible they are already present.

“There’s a concern that reducing these precautions, we are putting ourselves more at risk,” Bodily said. “We do still urge everyone to wear their mask … so that we can continue to work toward a healthier community.”

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