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BOISE — Idaho hasn’t met its COVID-19 criteria for moving out of Stage 4 reopening restrictions, Gov. Brad Little announced Thursday, but he pressed to reopen schools for the fall nevertheless.

“We are in a much different place now than we were in March,” Little said at a news conference. “Our economy is open. Many parents have returned to their places to work. We have increased our capacity for testing, contact tracing, and PPE for health care workers and businesses.”

He stressed that some trends are going the right way. “Even though we will remain in Stage 4 statewide for another two weeks, our statewide metrics are looking better,” the governor said.

Little noted the tens of millions of dollars in federal aid Idaho has funneled to schools for testing, personal protective equipment, distance learning and more in an effort to make schools safe during the pandemic. “For me, the critical issue is the balance between, what do we do about these kids in the gap that are going to get further behind, versus the safety issue,” he said.

“School operations will not look the same across the state, based on virus activity and health care capacity,” the governor said. “However, when students are out of the classroom for too long, the achievement gap widens. This gap draws down the progress of all students. This is detrimental to economic prosperity and future workforce demands. This gap inhibits an educated populace, which is critical to a successful democratic republic.”

State schools Superintendent Sherri Ybarra and State Board of Education President Debbie Critchfield joined Little for the announcement, stressing the importance of schools reopening.

Ybarra said, “For many reasons we want our schools to reopen, and for some kids, it’s because they’re losing ground fast. For other students, it’s their social-emotional well-being that is suffering. And for some kids, unfortunately school was the only place where a nutritious meal can be served for the day.”

Ybarra said school reopening will look different in different districts. “There’s no one size fits all,” she said. “Every community is and will be a little bit different.”

Critchfield said, “Our hope is that it can be in-person in some form or another for some period of time.”

Little said the state has seen some improvements in its metrics in the past two weeks. “We have sufficient health care workers, personal protective equipment, ventilators and ICU beds. We are meeting the demands for testing of our health care workers. We are seeing downward trends in overall case counts, as well as our percent positivity rates,” he said. “Emergency room visits for those with COVID-like symptoms are on the decline.”

The state, however, reported 692 new confirmed and probable cases on Thursday, one of the highest daily tallies so far. As of Monday, the latest day reported, 242 patients were hospitalized.

“We do need to bring down the number of hospitalizations statewide,” Little said. “But even in some of the hot spots, we are starting to see the benefit of measures that local health officials and mayors have implemented to reduce the rate of spread and preserve hospital capacity. That tells me our efforts are working.”

Dr. Christine Hahn, state epidemiologist, noted the recent downward trends in several areas. “I think that we are seeing better use across the state of masks,” she said. “I think we’re starting to see some benefits of that.”

However, she noted, “We’re coming down from a very high number, so although this is reassuring, we recognize that we still have quite a burden of illness and quite a number of people ill in our state.”

The state added an additional metric to its criteria for moving from one stage to the next, focusing on daily hospital admissions for COVID-19, in hopes that it will drop below an average of four per day. “We are well above that, even up to 14 a few days ago,” Hahn said. “So that is a measure we think is extremely important.”

Stage 4 is the final stage of Idaho’s four-stage economic reopening plan; it allows virtually all businesses to reopen and permits gatherings of any size, provided physical distancing of at least 6 feet and other preventive measures can be maintained, from wearing masks to hand hygiene, surface disinfecting and staying home when sick. Ada County, however, the state’s most-populated county, has moved back into Stage 3 due to extensive community spread of the coronavirus, and all bars have been ordered closed; in Stage 3, gatherings are limited to 50 people and visits to jails or long-term care facilities are prohibited.

“Thank you, Idahoans, for wearing a mask in public,” the governor said, “for keeping physical distance from others, maintaining good hygiene and clean spaces, and for staying home when you’re sick. If we continue to practice these measures, we will be able to send our kids back to school, we will be able to keep our citizens safe, and continue to rebound our economy and restore jobs.”

Reporter Thomas Plank contributed.

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.