S.D. education secretary holds pandemic calls each week with K-12 school superintendents

Capitol News Bureau
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PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Weekly talks with heads of South Dakota’s K-12 districts about COVID-19 are open to a state panel that sets regulations for the school systems, the state education secretary said Monday.

Ben Jones told the state Board of Education Standards at its meeting in Aberdeen that approximately 140 to 190 superintendents and others participate in the calls each Thursday. He said the calls had been daily last spring.

The board’s president, former teacher Jacqueline Sly of Rapid City, said board members would like to be able to answer more than “I don’t know” when people ask about South Dakota schools during the pandemic.

“We can certainly do that,” Jones said. He said it was good to have students back in the classrooms taking courses face to face with teachers this fall semester. Classrooms shut down in March and schools switched to online courses to finish spring semester.

Letting local school boards decide this fall when they need to suspend in-person classes because of local COVID-19 conditions, and deciding when to have students return, was “far better” than a flat rule that they need to hold in-person classes or go totally online, according to Jones.

He said a new $500 per student federal payment to schools can be used for anything that was related to COVID-19 — whether cleaning materials, Plexiglas dividers, technology additions, or teachers’ out-of-pocket expenses — that a school district hadn’t put in its budget.

Kay Schallenkamp of Spearfish, a board member and a past president of Black Hills State University, asked, “Is that enough money? It seems like five-hundred dollars is not going to go very far.” Jones said another federal program also gave $162 per student.

Board member Becky Guffin, the Aberdeen superintendent, said a difficulty facing school officials is they can’t predict their ongoing costs from the pandemic.

Schallenkamp asked whether the state Department of Education that Jones oversees would track expenses that could be built into state government’s next budget cycle.

State government’s position, Jones replied, was to see what happens at the federal level. He said Congress is discussing another wave of financial relief for K-12 schools, with both chambers interested in sending more money for another year down the pipeline.

Jones said the student-assessment waiver he granted last spring probably won’t be repeated. The U.S. Department of Education recently notified states that they should run the standardized tests in spring 2021. Jones said that, based on current conditions, he would direct schools to do assessments.

He said some staff in the state department are looking at what can be paused or suspended during the pandemic. He doesn’t want to delay school accreditations. “We find things that need to be found,” Jones said. “If there are other things I can pull off the plate, I’ll do that.”

President Sly said she was glad the department is delaying what it can. “We want the kids to be there,” she said.

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