‘It didn’t have to get to this point’: Rapid City mother speaks out about elementary school COVID-19 outbreak

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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Grandview Elementary in Rapid City has been closed for the 28th and 29th of October due to a shortage of staff in the wake of a COVID-19 outbreak which has seen 50 students and staff test positive since last Sunday.

Sarah Hermsen is the mother of Grandview Kindergartener, and she’s been vocal in her dissatisfaction with the handling of COVID-19 policies by the Rapid City School Board.

“I’m a little bit frustrated right now,” Hermsen told KELOLAND News via Zoom Thursday afternoon.

She says she received the alert that the school would be closed for the rest of the week at around 1:30pm on Wednesday and had to scramble to make sure she could be home on Thursday and Friday.

“I’m very lucky that I have a job that’s flexible,” she said. “I don’t know how other parents were able to do it when you find out at 1:30 in the afternoon — it’s stressful.”

Despite her dissatisfaction with the lack of extended notice, Hermsen says she is on board with the closing.

“I completely support the decision to close the schools,” she said. “I’m horrified at the number of positive cases we’ve had in the last week or so.”

Hermsen is also concerned with the lack of communication from the schools.

“The school board — five of the seven voted to take away the emails we were getting every day to let us know how many cases in each class in our school,” she said. “We go to a dashboard now on the district’s website and we can see total numbers of cases for our schools, but we can’t see where they’re at.”

Hermsen lamented this lack of daily emails. “For me it’s a lot about the communication that we lost — I think if we were still getting those, people could have made more informed decisions and maybe put the pressure on sooner to close the school.”

It’s disappointing that it got to this point. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. We could have put in measures a month ago to have avoided this — it’s so simple. It’s masks; it’s handwashing; it’s social distancing, but again five of the members on our board absolutely refused to do anything. Masks can’t even be recommended — teachers can’t even ask.

Sarah Hermsen

Hermsen describes a sense of futility in trying to advocate for her child.

“It feels like as a parent that there’s really nothing short-term, we can do,” she said. “We’ve rallied parents, we’ve written letters to the board, we’ve shown up at meetings. We brought a huge contingent of the medical community to a board meeting — it didn’t make any difference.”

Hermsen says her daughter is one of only two students in her class that wears a mask. “It’s every man for themselves, and it shouldn’t be like this,” she said.

Another aspect that Hermsen takes issue with is the fact that there are members of the school board who don’t have kids in the school district or who choose to homeschool. “For me it’s hard to understand how without going into the schools — how do you understand the situation if you don’t live it every day — you’re not going to know, because you’re at home with your kids or you don’t have children in school so you’re not living this every day.”

Hermsen says this distance may make the issues parents face easy to dismiss. “It’s a little upsetting to me that we have school board members who don’t have this first-hand experience and are kind of blowing it off.”

Asked what she would like to say to the school board, Hermsen made this request.

I would just like to plead with them to please take this seriously. It didn’t have to get to this point. I don’t want my kid out of school. I’m fully on board with my daughter in school — this could’ve been so easily avoided if we’d just taken a few precautionary measures that are so easy.

Sarah Hermsen

Lori Simon is the Superintendent of the Rapid City Area Schools. In August she voiced her concern to the school board over the rise of school cases of COVID-19 across the state. At that time, she recommended the school board allow temporary mask requirements if cases were to escalate. As of today, the school board has chosen to keep mask use voluntary in all situations.

Simon also spoke with KELOLAND News via Zoom and described the round-about way in which she was able to close the school as cases spiked.

“Under our revised emergency closure plan the superintendent does not have the authority to close schools due to a pandemic or a health-related crisis,” she explained.

This change stems from a September meeting at which the school board voted to get rid of a policy laying out the superintendent’s responsibilities and authority in the district.

“However,” continued Simon “the superintendent does have the authority to close school due to the inability to safely staff a school.”

This is the option that Simon utilized Wednesday afternoon when it was announced that Grandview Elementary would go remote for Thursday and Friday.

“As staff have been becoming ill — I have been in close conversation with Cynthia Lundgren who is the Principal at Grandview,” said Simon.

“It’s a closure due to COVID indirectly,” said Simon, describing how she was able to close Grandview. “If we had been under last year’s back to school plan, there would have been a closure of the school much sooner due to the thresholds that we had in place.”

There have been more student cases this year than there were last year, according to Simon.

“One thing that is different this year is most definitely the Delta variant,” she said.

Simon also acknowledged that masks played a factor in helping prevent COVID cases last year.

“We know from looking at our data last year that we could not find any cases that were linked to the actual school or workday if everyone was wearing mask at the time.”

Simon did make sure to point out that mask use may have also been more prevalent in the community at large last year, and that health officials she has spoken to could not predict how much a mask mandate could have helped this year.

Asked about the status of school come Monday, Simon said it was too soon to say. “It really just depends. I would hope that we would be able to make a decision by sometime early Sunday afternoon.”

As to what she would like to say to parents like Hermsen who are concerned with the decisions made by the school board, Simon struck a reassuring tone.

“My message would be that I take my work very, very seriously,” she said. “I am going to continue to do everything that I can to advocate on behalf of our staff, on behalf of our students — so that we can continue our work of educating our students.”

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