SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Students in South Dakota’s schools will be sharing classrooms with other students and COVID-19.
So far, COVID-19 cases in schools are outpacing last year’s numbers for the first two weeks in August.
COVID-19 cases in South Dakota’s K-12 schools increased by 33 cases from the first to the second week in August, according to the state’s Department of Health.
The DOH website listed 80 new cases for the week of Aug. 8-14 and 113 news cases for the week of Aug. 15-21. As of Aug. 21, there were 193 total COVID-19 cases in students and staff and 143 of those were active cases.
During the first two weeks of August 2020, there were 60 new COVID-19 cases in schools in the first week and 71 new cases for the week ending Aug. 21, 2020.
By the time most schools started classes in the third week of August in 2020, the number jumped to 186 new cases in K-12 schools.
The 2020-2021 school year will start without many schools requiring masks or vaccinations for students or staff.
In contrast, two medical organizations in the state and the Centers for Disease Control have said masks should be worn indoors in schools.
Students under 12 are not yet eligible for the vaccine which means about 87,000 students in South Dakota’s public school can’t get vaccinated. The number of students is based on the Fall 2020 enrollment.
Based on many schools’ plans for the 2021-2022, two layers of cloth and three feet of space won’t separate about 87,000 unvaccinated students from each other and a virus that according to the CDC spreads easier and more rapidly than other COVID-19 strains and infects more younger individuals each week.
But many school districts in the state have flexible COVID-19 plans that will allow them to respond as the COVID-19 situation changes in their district, said Wade Pogany, the executive director of the Associated School Boards of South Dakota (ASBSD).
For example, if the COVID-19 situation is worse at one school campus, the district could close that campus and move to virtual learning or require masks, while other campuses remain open in the district, Pogany said.
The ASBSD worked with school districts and school boards last year on COVID-19 mitigation plans. The districts have used those plans and refined them for this year, Pogany said.
The Department of Education had a web page dedicated to Starting Well 2020 last year. A DOE statement said the agency recognizes the need for schools to be flexible and adjust to changing conditions during the school year. The DOE would be partnering with the DOH to assist schools.
This year, schools are directed to the Strong Schools 2021-2022 web page which emphasizes a need to re-engage students and attend to gaps and other student needs created during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The South Dakota Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics became the latest medical organization to recommend that schools require masks because of COVID-19. The organization sent a letter this week to the ASBSD asking it for mask mandates.
The letter said masks were needed because children under 12 can get vaccinated, the Delta variant is highly contagious, other viruses with symptoms similar to COVID-19 are emerging which will complicate problems created by COVID-19 and cause more disruption to schools and as well as other reasons, according to various media outlets.
“I don’t disagree with their science,” Pogany said.
But local school boards must also consider their local communities and input from the local community, Pogany said.
On Aug. 4, the South Dakota Medical Association said it supported masks in school.
“Without having vaccines for children under 12, they are more susceptible. There are more younger people and children at this point in time getting sick with the Delta variant,” SDSMA president Dr. Kara L. Dahl said in an Aug. 4 KELOLAND News story. “We want children to still be able to socialize and go to school, but until we can get this under control that’s something that is supported by science.”
The DOE statement on the 2021-2022 Strong Schools page reflects what Governor Kristi Noem has been saying in Twitter posts since late July.
“School administrators should ensure their policies are consistent, sustainable, and prevent disruption to our students’ education. South Dakota kept our kids in school all last year, and this next school year should be no different,” Noem posted on her Twitter account on July 28.
“My position on mask mandates has not changed. School leaders should consider the full impact on learning and social development that masks can have on children,” Noem posted on July 28.
While Noem has made it clear she’s not a big fan of masks in schools, the DOE web page does refer users to CDC links such as “Guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in K-12 Schools.”
The CDC guidelines are a contrast to Noem’s leadership on COVID-19 and schools.
The CDC recommends cites the circulation and highly contagious Delta variant as a reason for “universal indoor masking by all students (age 2 and older), staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status. In addition to universal indoor masking, CDC recommends schools maintain at least 3 feet of physical distance between students within classrooms to reduce transmission risk,” according to its website.
Pogany said a statewide mask mandate for schools does not allow local schools to make decisions that best fit their district. “One size doesn’t fit all,” he said.
Discussions about mask wearing and other COVID-19 mitigation strategies have drawn some intense opinions in the state, Pogany said.
“There are loud voices on both sides,” Pogany said. So, it’s not a case of only the loudest voices being heard at school board meetings and shaping policies, he said.
“The loudest voice at any meeting is the mom who doesn’t want her child to wear a mask and the mom who does want her child to wear a mask,” Pogany said.
What’s COVID-19 like at college so far?
The new case numbers in colleges took an even bigger jump during the third week of August in 2020. There were 456 new COVID-19 cases at colleges compared to 71 in the prior week and 28 new cases for the week of Aug. 9-15, 2020.
Twenty-two COVID-19 cases were reported in colleges for the week of Aug. 8-14, 2021 and another 25 new cases were reported for the week of Aug. 15-21, 2021. The DOH reported 47 total COVID-19 cases in students and staff at colleges with 38 of those as active infections.
Just as with public schools, the year will start differently than last year at the state’s public colleges.
On July 22, 2020, the South Dakota Board of Regents said masks would be required at classroom or lab settings where following CDC social distancing guidelines would not be doable. The requirement was the first level of a four-level mask plan at state colleges. The expansion of masks requirements would happen if COVID-19 worsened.
On May 4, the board announced that the tiered mask response would end. Classes would start in the fall without the mask plan.
The board’s website includes a COVID-19 response for in-person learning that emphasizes offering and promoting vaccinations on campus, consistent and correct use of masks, physical distancing and other actions.