SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — The tri-colored status levels for all campuses in the Sioux Falls School District were all Green Level 1 as of Sept. 1, but that doesn’t mean the district does not have cases of COVID-19, said Doug Morrison, a program director for the SFSD.
Morrison said on Sept. 1 that while a building status explainer and information at an Aug. 24 school board meeting shows that Green Level 1 indicates there is no confirmed COVID-19 cases in school buildings, it really means that COVID-19 has not changed the structure of any classroom.
That’s why the status of all campus buildings in the district were at Green Level 1 as of Sept. 1, Morrison said.
Green Level 2 indicates that COVID-19 has caused a change in a classroom structure in a building. At least one classroom may have moved to a modified schedule under Green Level 2, Morrison said.
Morrison said he would be talking to school officials about updating the status explanation to make it clearer.
Tracking and sharing COVID-19 information with parents and others is just one piece of the work being done in schools now that students have returned to some form of instruction in South Dakota.
“I think it’s going as expected,” said Rob Monson, the executive director of the School Administrators of South Dakota.
Monson described the first week of school as “Getting the airplane in the air.”
Now, “We need to make repairs as we fly. We need to keep it up there as long as we can,” Monson said.
Dr. Wade Pogany, the executive director of the Associated School Boards of South Dakota, had two words to describe the start of school this fall: excitement and caution.
Staff was excited to see students but school staff were also cautious because they want students and staff to be safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, Pogany said.
School personnel “spent the whole summer working on reopening plans knowing those could change by the day,” Pogany said.
Some school districts had to adjust after in-person instruction started.
The Harrisburg School District website shows that the high school, the two middle schools and one elementary school are in the yellow status, which means COVID-19 cases have been confirmed. In this level, students are required to wear masks in hallways and other adjustments are being made, according to the school’s plan on the website.
Some adjustments were made before in-person instruction started.
The Lemmon School District announced on its Facebook page on Aug. 24 that school was canceled for grades K-5 from Aug. 24 – Sept. 7 because of COVID-19.
The South Dakota Department of Health reported that as of Aug. 29, there were 195 COVID-19 cases in the state’s K-12 public and private schools. School districts are sharing COVID-19 information with the DOH, which then determines COVID-19 confirmation and close contacts.
Harrisburg and Lemmon are two examples of how districts are sharing COVID-19 information with parents and the general public.
“I say this in all honesty. With all the things on the minds of teachers and administrators, (sharing with the public) is not a priority,” Pogany said. “They’ve got other things to do.”
It’s not as if school districts don’t want to share, but when a suspected COVID-19 case happens in a school, school officials must react quickly and begin to work with the state, parents and staff, Pogany said.
“Things can change hour by hour and even minute by minute,” Monson said.
Administrators are just one phone call away from making COVID-19 adjustments, Monson and Pogany said.
Yet, “everybody wants to know how many cases, at what grade level,” Monson said.
Medical privacy laws prevent districts from releasing too much specific information on COVID-19, Monson said.
Districts also want to be careful not to create anxiety in a community, Monson said.
A district may have 10 cases of COVID-19 but those cases may be spread among several grade levels in multiple buildings, Monson said. A district may be able to handle that without calling off school, he said.
But the public may respond differently if it learns there are 10 cases and be asking why isn’t school called off and it could cause some panic, Monson said.
Keeping the airplane in the air
Maintaining some form of in-person instruction is the goal of school districts, Monson and Pogany said.
A district the size of Sioux Falls, with about 25,000 students and multiple buildings, may have more flexibility than a smaller district with fewer buildings, Pogany said.
COVID-19 cases may impact one building more than another or one classroom more than another, Pogany said. Some of those buildings or classrooms may need to be in a modified schedule or even virtual, while others are in-person learning, Pogany said.
One key to maintaining in-person instruction is the health of teachers.
“I think the biggest challenge is: Can we keep our staff safe?” Monson said.
“If you lose four teachers in a school like Lemmon, you’re done, you shut down,” Pogany said.
Finding substitute teachers in small communities can be difficult, they said.
There may be more substitutes in a larger community such as Sioux Falls, they said.
Yet, COVID-19 could impact the availability of substitute teachers.
Monson said he’s heard that some older, retired teachers who are substitutes in the state have chosen not to substitute teach this year.
The public can help keep students in school
While school administrators and staff have plans to keep kids in school, communities need to help, Pogany and Monson said.
Monson said the public needs to continue to use common sense when it comes to COVID-19 prevention by social distancing, wearing a mask when it’s called for and washing hands.
“It all depends on the infection rate and behavior in the community,” Pogany said. If the public wants children to remain in school, then it needs to act accordingly when it comes to COVID-19, he said.