WALLACE, Idaho — While starting a new school year arguably never feels normal for most teenagers, the first day of classes on Thursday felt especially unique for Wallace Junior/Senior High School student Will Farkas.
"It was a little odd," admitted the senior wearing a Wallace-branded facemask.
Aside from learning new class assignments and breaking open fresh school supplies, Farkas was attending school during a global pandemic.
"It was a little weird, because we only had half of our students here," said Farkas. "But they tried to make it as normal as possible while still keeping distanced and hand sanitizers and stuff."
Thursday marked the first day of classes for the roughly 480 students in the Wallace School District, which is comprised of the junior/senior high school and an elementary school in Osburn. While the nearby Mullan School District also started on Thursday, Wallace superintendent Todd Howard said that, to his knowledge, the schools are among the earliest to begin classes in North Idaho.
Like other districts, though, Wallace has adopted several measures aimed at combating the spread of coronavirus. Notably, the district is employing a blended learning model to start the year.
For now, students in the Wallace district are divided into "A" and "B" groups. Students in group A will attend school in-person on Mondays and Wednesdays, while students in group B will go to school on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The plan will reduce the number of students in school facilities on any given day and will make it more difficult for coronavirus to spread, the district has argued.
Howard told KREM on Thursday that additional measures include reduced capacity on school buses and temperature checks of students preparing to ride the bus to school. Additionally, students getting dropped off at school will have their temperature taken as well.
Howard explained that district leaders have sought to reduce the size of cohort groups at the district's two schools and will be using staggered meal times and recess period as well in an effort to practice social distancing.
"It was a little odd. You go in, and you get a little microfiber cloth," said Farkas of cleaning materials given to students entering the junior/senior high school.
Still, the senior said he was happy to be in class.
"It felt good to be back in school, but just a little different."
While Shoshone County went months without a confirmed coronavirus case, the county's COVID-19 stats have started to rise in recent months.
After the county's first case was tallied in early July, numbers from the Panhandle Health District now show Shoshone County with 194 cases and 12 deaths. Close to half of those cases and deaths, however, have been associated with the Mountain Valley of Cascadia long-term care facility in Kellogg. The skilled nursing home has been the site of an ongoing outbreak, according to data released by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.
Regarding face coverings, information posted to the Wallace School District website says that students aren't always required to wear masks but will be "strongly encouraged to wear a mask only during the duration of time where distancing isn't possible."
"As long as we were distanced, we didn't have to put a mask on. But if we were in groups, you had to," said Caitiln Garitone, a Wallace sophomore.
"It's just weird seeing everyone with masks on, and the protocols you have to do. But you have to do it," she said.
In a letter to Wallace families, Howard said that the district's current operating plan is fluid and could change at any time. Parents would be notified of any changes, however.
"I'm disappointed that this is how my senior year is starting out. But I'm glad that we're at least going back some days," said Farkas.