In Gov. Kristi Noem’s words, “South Dakota took a different path,” amid COVID-19.
There is perhaps no more stark example of this than to consider: At a time when millions of American adults are mandated to wear a mask over their nose and mouth just to go outside their front doors, Pierre School District children will face nothing of the sort upon returning to class Aug. 20.
“Students will be strongly encouraged to wear masks,” the back-to-school strategy Pierre Superintendent Kelly Glodt released at 4 p.m. Friday.
The full plan is available here: https://pierre.k12.sd.us/documents/admin/pierre_back_to_school_plan.pdf.
“While we have worked hard to ensure that the at home/online option for all K-12 grade students is as effective as possible, there is no substitute for in-person instruction,” Glodt stated in his letter to parents that accompanied the plan.
“The past four months have been challenging for everyone, and we will have other hurdles to jump as we navigate the school year. That said, I am confident our staff and students will rise to the occasion, abide by the established protocols at each building, and make this one of our best years ever,” Glodt added.
Noem confirmed South Dakota’s first five COVID-19 cases on March 10. In-person sessions for the 2019-20 academic term came to a close for most of South Dakota and the nation. The T.F. Riggs High School class of 2020 collected their diplomas during a drive-by graduation and hat-toss ceremony.
Despite being dismissed from in-person instruction in the spring, Noem has left little doubt that South Dakota’s students would go back to class in the fall.
“Kids are coming back to classrooms this Fall in South Dakota. We made that decision many weeks ago. We need to do our best to give our kids the highest quality education possible while making wise decisions to continue dealing with #COVID19,” she tweeted July 8.
Though masks will be optional for students in Pierre, Glodt’s plan states: “Staff will be expected to wear face shields and/or masks if working in close proximity of students for extended periods of time.”
There are also provisions for social distancing of 6 feet. The plan adds that each school’s cafeteria will have expanded space to allow for social distancing, while lunch schedules have been revised to only run the cafeterias at 50% capacity.
Not all students will go back to class, parents have the option for online learning. “Our online options, at all levels, will be coordinated and monitored by a Pierre School District employee so we can attempt to maintain the personal relationships that are so critical in the development of our students. We will be utilizing Edgenuity’s K-12 Learning Solutions for this process,” Glodt added.
Meanwhile, anyone studying or working at a public university in South Dakota this year will be expected to cover their faces when classes start Aug. 19. This week, members of the South Dakota Board of Regents said all students, staff, faculty, and campus visitors will be required to wear masks in all public indoor spaces on campus.
“University of South Dakota strongly supports wearing face coverings as a practical way to reduce the transmission of COVID-19,” university President Sheila K. Gestring said in reaction. “In addition to maintaining physical distancing and washing your hands, wearing a face covering is one of the most significant steps we can take to help protect others and ourselves. We are grateful for the Board of Regents’ action, which offers universities the flexibility to act quickly to adjust campus operations, should it become necessary due to the fluid nature of the coronavirus pandemic.”
The board actually adopted a four-tier strategy of requirements, with the regulations becoming more stringent as the public concern grows. The mandate for masks in all indoor public areas is considered Level 3. This will be reviewed after 30 days, board officials said.
The levels of regulation are as follows, according to the board:
Level 1 — Requires face coverings in all classroom or lab settings where course delivery requires close proximity or physical contact and makes Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommendations on physical distancing impractical. Examples are instructional laboratories, clinical training environments, and design or art studio instruction;
Level 2 — Requires face coverings in all public areas of academic buildings on campus (including classrooms, hallways, and common areas), along with other indoor areas where 30 or more individuals frequently congregate or interact in a setting not conducive to maintaining CDC-recommended physical distancing;
Level 3 — Requires face coverings in all public indoor spaces on campus;
Level 4 — Requires face coverings in all public indoor and outdoor areas of campus.
Brian Maher, the regents’ executive director and CEO, characterized the four-tiered approach as “responding in a practical way to the changing COVID-19 landscape at campuses and within their respective communities.”
Gestring said at her institution, qualifying face coverings may include a mask, bandana, shield or any other covering that covers the mouth and nose.
“We know this fall will look a little different for our community members,” Gestring added. “But we’re confident that we can deliver a true USD experience that meets students’ academic, social and emotional needs.”
South Dakota State University President Barry Dunn said he supports the actions of the board.
“The policy was the result of several weeks of research and discussion among the university presidents, the regents and BOR staff. Information was provided by leading medical experts and by the South Dakota Department of Health. Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was also utilized,” he said.