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State legislators speak about school reopening plans

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Three Legislators

Gov. Kristi Noem’s own Department of Health state’s plainly on its website, “Everyone should wear a cloth face cover in public settings,” but this has never been more than a recommendation in the ongoing battle against COVID-19.

The case will be the same for Pre-K to 12 students returning to the classroom across South Dakota later this month, unless an individual school district board chooses to mandate masks. Neither the Pierre School District, nor the Stanley County School District, plan to require students to wear masks in their buildings this year … at least not as of this writing.

Despite the concerns expressed by some parents and grandparents answering the Capital Journal’s online poll about students going to school without masks, three South Dakota House of Representatives members — one Democrat and two Republicans — said they believe local officials are better suited to make such decisions than are those who gather under the State Capitol dome.

“While I support wearing masks and believe it’s one factor to keeping people safe, I think it’s appropriate that a mask wearing policy is made locally by individual school districts,” said Minority Whip Erin Healy, D-Sioux Falls. “That being said, I’ve spoken with many people in District 14 and the majority of my constituents are saying they want their kids wearing masks when they go to school.”

Healy’s position is somewhat different than the one Noem took during a national TV spot on Fox News last month.

“It certainly would be challenging for a child to keep a mask on for seven, eight hours a day. Even while I’ve sat with a child that had one on, five or 10 minutes is ... very difficult for them. And they are constantly touching it, taking it off, dropping it on the floor. Those all increase rates of infection,” Noem told the national audience.

Nevertheless, both Stanley County and Pierre school officials said masks will be “strongly recommended” when students return to class later this month. State Reps. Tim Rounds and Mary Duvall, both R-Pierre, said individual school districts should have the authority to set their own policies regarding masks.

“I believe the decision to require students to wear masks should be left up to each school district. There are vast differences between schools in rural Meade County and those in Sioux Falls and Rapid City. Locally elected school boards are in the best position to work with parents and staff to make good decisions for the students in their district,” Duvall said.

Duvall is currently running unopposed for election to the District 24 Senate seat, as incumbent Sen. Jeff Monroe, R-Pierre, did not file for re-election. Rounds, younger brother of U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., was term-limited and ineligible to seek re-election to the South Dakota House this year.

“The Sioux Falls School District is different then the Faith School District, the Pierre School District is different then the Highmore School District. One size does not fit all in South Dakota,” Rounds said. “The wearing of masks should be left up to the individual school district and the parents. There can be state recommendations, but leave the policy to the school district.”

Should Parents Be Concerned?

While Rounds and Duvall said parents have a right to be concerned about the wellbeing of their children when sending them to a school that will not require masks, Healy went as far as to say parents “should be worried.”

“Everyone involved should be worried about the risk of infection and transmitting the virus to others. I’m reluctant to say the school districts can handle the situation because I believe they need more policies and funding to properly mitigate the spread of infection,” Healy said.

Healy also said teachers, faculty and other employees in schools have the right to be concerned about safe working conditions. South Dakota Education Association President Loren Paul, whose union represents more than 5,000 educational professionals in the state, expressed similar thoughts to the Capital Journal last week.

“I hope districts are listening to parents/guardians and their concerns as they create their safety policies,” Healy added.

Rounds and Duvall said they understand parents’ potential preoccupations with this unprecedented situation. However, they again emphasized the decisions should be left to those at the local level.

“Parents always have the right to be concerned about their children. If parents are concerned about the conditions at school, they should work with the school board and school administration to address their concerns,” Duvall said.

“Parents definitely have a right to be concerned about the health and welfare of their children returning to school, with or without the current circumstances of COVID-19. The local school district can, and will, handle the situation based on the input from parents, educators, staff and citizens of the school district,” Rounds added.

Students in the Pierre School District are scheduled to return to class Aug. 20, while those in Stanley County Schools are not expected to start until Aug. 26.

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