Coeur d'Alene schools see rise in COVID-19 cases days after opening for full-time in-person learning

In the week since Coeur d'Alene Public Schools returned to full-time, in-person instruction, the school district has identified 23 students or staff members with COVID-19, with at least one likely case of in-school transmission between students, says district spokesperson Scott Maben.

A total of 25 individuals — students and staff — are currently isolating after testing positive. Hundreds more are considered "close contacts" to the positive cases and have been asked to quarantine. Most of the positive COVID-19 cases were students or staff in middle or high school buildings, with 10 cases found at Lake City High School alone in the last week, according to the district.

Infection rates, in both Coeur d'Alene and Spokane, have been rising in recent weeks, though K-12 schools don't appear to be the driving force. Spokane Public Schools, which started the year online, is currently phasing in younger grades for in-person instruction and has had only two people test positive for COVID-19, with neither originating inside a school building.


But Coeur d'Alene schools may be seeing spread within classrooms. Maben says the district is "fairly confident" that there's been one case of in-school transmission — meaning spread of the virus within a school building — and that they "suspect" there's a second case of in-school transmission as well.

The district won't say
which school or schools may be seeing spread within the building. 

"I'm not at liberty to disclose it at this time," Maben says. "But again, we are definitely notifying anyone we believe who has been exposed, and we are working hard to quickly isolate people, and quarantine them. So I think that we're right on top of trying to control any kind of ongoing transmission through those efforts."

DECIDING TO OPEN

The Coeur d'Alene School District, with more than 10,000 students, started out classes this year under what it dubbed a "moderate" risk level, which dictated a blended-learning model, meaning students would attend school twice a week in-person with the rest of instruction online. Only one case of coronavirus was identified in the first couple of weeks, at Skyway Elementary school.


On Sept. 21, the district's Board of Trustees held a meeting and appeared ready to move Coeur d'Alene into the "minimal" risk category, which would open schools for full-time in-person instruction. During that meeting, however, Panhandle Health District and Kootenai Health presented some concerning statistics: Infection rates and hospitalizations were going up slightly. Board members were torn, and decided not to open school for in-person instruction, yet.

"...These are not easy decisions, and this is a really critical time for a community, in my opinion, with the impacts that opening up schools are going to have."

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"I'm really, really struggling," says Jennifer Brumley, vice-chair of the board. "I came into this with a plan, with the statistics I had... these are not easy decisions, and this is a really critical time for a community, in my opinion, with the impacts that opening up schools are going to have."

She later added, "this sucks. This really sucks."

The Coeur d'Alene community, however, was divided on the decision, and many criticized the board for not opening schools back up, arguing that the school district put itself in a stricter risk category than Panhandle Health had determined the region was in. Some people shared the home addresses of board members on Facebook while discussing whether to protest outside their homes, Maben says, but those protests did not happen.

Four days later, the school board met again. They decided to change the school district's risk level to the same as Panhandle Health District, which at the time, and currently, says Kootenai County is in at "minimal risk," despite rising infection rates recently.

Brumley insisted during that meeting that the decision to open schools full-time by Oct. 5 was "not a reaction to the commentary and the criticism that happened this week," but instead a decision to align risk levels with the health district. But she added "we're acutely aware of how, frankly, divided this community is."


The school district, as Superintendent Steven Cook admitted days earlier, doesn't have enough space to keep students 6 feet apart in all classrooms with everyone back to school. Still, board Chair Casey Morrisroe says the district had a good plan for in-person learning.

"I hope that those that are uneasy about the change to [minimal risk] will review the plan and see that we have necessary precautions in place, based on the level of risk that the county has put as at, to address those concerns," Morrisroe says.

WHAT HAPPENS NOW

While there were more than a dozen positive cases in schools before Coeur d'Alene opened schools, including six at Coeur d'Alene High School, the bulk of the positive cases have been identified in the last week since the district went full-time in-person.

A full list of schools with positive cases can be found on the district's website.

It's unclear whether those who tested positive at the school have spread the virus to others in the community. Panhandle Health spokeswoman Katherine Hoyer says they are not necessarily tracking all cases linked to K-12 schools, and the school district only reports positive cases of students and staff members, not parents or other close contacts. 

Maben says the school district is not seriously considering closing down any individual school with an outbreak.

"We certainly have the ability to do that," Maben says. "I'm not sure we've spelled out a threshold for when that would be necessary... we're aware that it may come to that at some point, I don't think we feel like, even with Lake City High School, that we're wanting to take that step."

For now, Panhandle Health is maintaining that the region is in the minimal risk category. That could change — two metrics, the incidence rate and testing positivity, have crossed the threshold where "moderate" risk would be. If the health district moves to the higher risk category, Coeur d'Alene may go to blended learning once again.

In the meantime, Maben says school nurses are helping with contact tracing and notifying individuals who have been exposed. The district hopes to keep a traditional school schedule as long as possible.

"We're quickly learning from every experience, every incidence that we have, how much it takes to get this done," Maben says. 

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About The Author

Wilson Criscione

Wilson Criscione, born and raised in Spokane, is an Inlander staff writer covering education and social services in the Inland Northwest.