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OPINION

by Rod Gramer
| August 15, 2020 1:00 AM

The angst many educators and parents have surrounding whether students should return to the classroom or learn online is not surprising, given the news we receive every day about the coronavirus’s spread in our state.

In fact, the same debate is raging across the country.

A poll released last week by NPR/Ipsos showed that 82% of K-12 teachers are concerned about the safety of returning to the classroom. Two-thirds of the teachers said they favored online learning only. That survey mirrored another NPR/Ipsos survey in which 66% of adults favored students learning remotely.

The reason for nervousness among Idaho educators and parents may be gleaned from data released this week by the Johns Hopkins Center for Systems and Engineering. At the time of the report, the Johns Hopkins data showed that Idaho had 24,675 cases of COVID-19, with an infection rate of 1,380 per 100,000 people. Idaho had 237 deaths as of Aug. 10, with a death rate of 13.3 per 100,000 people. The total deaths are higher now.

Those infection and death rates per 100,000 people were higher than any of our surrounding states except Nevada. Washington had a higher death rate, but its infection rate per 100,000 people was substantially lower than Idaho’s.

In Oregon, which has more than twice Idaho’s population of 1.7 million, there were 3,403 fewer infections than in our state, according to Johns Hopkins. And Oregon’s death rate per 100,000 people stood at 8.4 compared to Idaho’s 13.3. Utah also had both fewer infections and deaths per 100,000 people than Idaho. In fact, Utah had only 99 more total deaths than Idaho, despite having nearly twice our population.

One can only speculate on why Idaho’s infection and death rates are higher than most of our surrounding states. But it is hard not to conclude that mandated precautions from the officials of those states and/or more voluntary support for masks and social distancing from their citizens or a combination of the two are keeping their infection and death rates lower than ours.

Since June, Gov. Brad Little has urged Idahoans to voluntarily comply with CDC recommendations by wearing masks and social distancing so that we can safely open our schools and businesses. But voluntary efforts only work if people are willing to listen. The Johns Hopkins data would indicate that too many of us are ignoring our leaders and health experts.

So, the debate in Idaho rages on over masks, or no masks, over the virus being the deadliest in a century, or a hoax and over whether taking simple precautions are prudent, or an infringement on our freedoms.

Meanwhile, more Idahoans fall ill every day per capita than in most of our surrounding states, and even whole countries which have figured out how to contain the virus and open their schools safely.

School leaders do not have the luxury of ideological debates. They must make hard and difficult decisions on how to reopen their schools. They must balance the safety of students and teachers against the strong desire for in-classroom learning. Their decision is made only harder when people ignore the science and the health experts, leading to the surge we see now.

It will require leadership, wisdom and science from our public officials, health care providers and medical researchers to control this virus. But none of these people can help us contain the virus without the people of Idaho doing our part. That means you and me.

If we can contain this virus, the fear, anxiety and division will at least be eased. And best of all, we can safely open our schools and businesses and get closer to normal lives.

That would be a nice thing for all of us — regardless of our differences.

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Rod Gramer is president of Idaho Business for Education.