Worries hover over return to schools

Mary McCorkle, who will soon leave her post as president of the South Dakota Education Association, said the pandemic is worrisome but also provides some opportunities for children to learn valuable life lessons.

With a new school year fast approaching in South Dakota, the usual feelings of excitement, anticipation and opportunity have been replaced with angst, anxiety and worry.

The COVID-19 pandemic has cast a pall of uncertainty over whether students, teachers and staff can safely return to schools for in-person teaching and learning. As of mid-July in South Dakota, the vast majority of public schools appeared poised to open in late August and bring children back to the classroom, though many are offering a remote, home-based Option.

To better understand what people at all levels of the public education system are enduring, South Dakota News Watch in early July contacted several South Dakotans on the front lines of the fall 2020 return to school.

Before school starts, Jodi Jensen and her husband are facing a decision that could have life-or-death consequences for their son, Justin. Justin is a gregarious, high-achieving sixth-grader who loves going to school in Huron. According to his mom, Justin desperately wants to see his friends and teachers again.

Jodi Jensen wants to send him back to school in August, but the coronavirus has created agony over the choice of whether Justin returns to classes, undergoes remote learning through the school district or begins a home-school program with his mom. If Justin became infected with COVID-19, the likelihood of major complications, possibly even death, is high due to a number of comorbidity issues created by previous and ongoing illnesses.

Justin had whooping cough at two weeks old, which destroyed part of his bronchial function. Later, he contracted Kawasaki Syndrome, a lymphatic disorder that can cause swelling in coronary arteries but also swelling of mucous membranes in the mouth, nose and throat. Justin also has dysautonomia, which inhibits his ability to regulate body temperature, and he suffers from severe asthma.

“When he catches even the slightest cold, he gets very sick very quickly, and it turns into pneumonia very quickly,” Jensen said. The family is aware that sending Justin back to school, even with safety measures in place, will be risky. “Based on the way his health works, our fear is that even if he gets the regular influenza, he’s in trouble and sometimes is hospitalized for that. And now you’re talking about another virus that comes along that acts differently and attacks the part of his body that is already Compromised.”

The Huron school district is considering a plan to allow parents who don’t want their children to attend school to engage in remote learning provided by the district. So far, the plan is to recommend but not require masks in schools, Superintendent Terry Nebelsick said.

At this point, the risk for Justin is likely too high for him to return to school in August, Jensen said, even though she worries that isolating an intelligent, curious, fun-loving child from his peers could cause heartache or even depression.

“It’s really scary based on his health,” she said. “You don’t want to say, ‘Let’s risk the child’s life for social happiness,’ but social happiness is also very Important.” If things go well, or a vaccine is discovered, they may allow Justin to return to classes at some point in the 2020-21 school year, Jensen said.

Susan Waagmeester, 63, is a 25-year art teacher in Sioux Falls who is worried that the school environment may be a crucible for spreading the coronavirus. As of July 15, Minnehaha County, where Sioux Falls is the county seat, was home to about half of the state’s 7,652 total COVID-19 infections, with 3,796 cases and 60 of the state’s 111 deaths.

“In the Sioux Falls schools, it’s like a sea of bodies wall to wall, and all it takes is one person to have it and it could just explode,” she said. “I see bad things happening, just like in all the states that re-opened too early.”

In addition to her concerns for the safety of her students and fellow staff members, Waagmeester is also worried that the virus could infect her or her husband, who is a custodian in a Sioux Falls elementary school.

“Every day we go to work, chances are we’ll be close to someone who is infected and may be asymptomatic, because it’s going to be in the halls, it’s going to be in the air and in the cafeteria when 400 of them are in there eating lunch,” said Waagmeester, who teaches at Lincoln High.

Beyond that, Waagmeester helps care for her elderly parents, frequently bringing food and supplies to the couple, ages 85 and 88, and she worries she could spread the potentially deadly virus to them. Due to their ages, both the Waagmeesters and her parents are concerned they likely are at higher risk for serious health implications from the potentially deadly virus.

Waagmeester has been watching the planning process by Sioux Falls administrators and said more safety measures are needed. She wants all faculty, staff and students to be required to wear masks at all times, for classrooms to be sterilized between classes and for daily student attendance to be staggered so fewer students are at school and in each classroom on any given day.

Sue Podoll is a special-education teacher in Rapid City and is the president of the Rapid City Education Association. Podoll said she and most other teachers are hopeful that staff, faculty and students can all return to school in the fall and do so safely.

Pennington County, home to Rapid City, had reported 674 COVID-19 cases and 22 deaths as of July 15, many cases arising in recent months amid tourism season. Special-education students and teachers may face unique challenges, Podoll said. Some special-education students are unable to wear masks and breathe well, and others may not tolerate having a mask on their face, she Said.

Special-education teachers, meanwhile, are committed to the close-up nature of teaching special-ed students, which will make social distancing nearly impossible. Special-education students also may not be as successful with remote learning, if that becomes necessary, she said.

Podoll said she was also concerned by data released by the Rapid City schools in the spring indicating that about 25% of students in the system were never contacted or never participated in any way in remote learning offered by the district when schools closed due to the pandemic.

“We know the detriments of either unsupervised learning, or if there is a lack of resources or support in a home situation, which creates a struggle that puts some of our most vulnerable kids even further behind,” she said. Low-income students may also be at a disadvantage when it comes to staying safe, including in Rapid City, where the district does not plan to provide masks to students. “If my priority is a mask for my kid to be in school or food on the table, you know I’m going to choose food,” she said.

In Huron, located in a county that has seen hundreds of cases of COVID-19, 93% of parents surveyed by the district said they want their children to attend schools in the fall, said Superintendent Terry Nebelsick.

“A goal cannot be to open up schools no matter what; our goal has to be to open up schools as safely as possible as soon as possible,” Nebelsick said. “We have to balance the protection from the virus the best we can with also meeting the other needs of our children.”

Nebelsick said the district intends to offer in-person and remote learning options, and will encourage mask use but not require it. “The more we do guidelines and the less we do mandates, the more participation we are going to have, and I really believe that,” Nebelsick said.

The Rapid City area school system, the second-largest in the state, is facing difficulty in trying to increase social distancing at a time when roughly half its schools are already at capacity or overcrowded, spokeswoman Katy Urban said. “We are already crunched for space, so there are some pretty big issues with that given our space constraints,” she said. The district will provide masks and personal protective equipment to teachers and staff, but not to its 14,000 students, and wearing of masks is not expected to be mandatory.

Smaller, more rural school districts are facing many of the same concerns as larger districts when it comes to keeping kids safe, though they may have some advantages, said Rod Weber, superintendent in Woonsocket, a district with about 250 students located 35 miles north of Mitchell.

“The smaller schools might be able to social distance better,” Weber said. “We’re talking about our school with 70 kids compared with a school of 1,000 students, so we’re not packed in here shoulder to shoulder.”

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