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‘It’s all we have’: parents express concerns about proposed RCAS policy changes

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2021 School Board Group Shot

The 2021 School Board met for a session on Aug. 24, 2021. 

At Tuesday's Board of Education meeting for Rapid City Area Schools, the Board plans to consider several new policies and adjust or delete well-established older policies.

The Board, which will meet at 5:30 p.m. in the Rapid City High School Historic Theatre, plans to make more changes to the District’s COVID-19 plan as well as vote on changes to board meeting procedure, emergency school closures for health reasons, and policy adoption.

Additionally, the Board intends to slash entirely policies pertaining to board governance process, the superintendent’s operational expectations, educational results, board-superintendent relations, and the student board representative program.

The Board is expected to further revise the COVID-19 plan, which was revised at the Board’s last meeting to exclude mask recommendations, internal contact tracing, social distancing requirements, and otherwise relax mitigation protocols that had been in place during the 2020-21 school year for a third time to further eliminate COVID protocols.

The newest proposed changes include: making social distancing encouraged, rather than required or prohibited; requiring parental consent for testing students for COVID; and shifting all COVID case notification responsibilities to the South Dakota Department of Health. Currently, the District sends out notifications of COVID-positive students and staff to families and staff in the affected building.

In the first two weeks of school, nearly all school buildings have seen increasing volumes of positive cases. On the first day of school there were 44 active cases among students and staff. By Friday, Sept. 3, the District reported 209 students and 27 staff with COVID infections, with an additional 484 students and 35 staff in quarantine. The District has 97 recovered cases.

Many parents and RCAS teachers have been reaching out to Board representatives and the Journal to express their concerns with the proposed policy changes, especially the building-level COVID notifications, to be voted on at the next meeting. The majority of respondents said they are angry with what they perceive as a lack of transparency from a Board with a majority of members who ran for office on a platform of increased communication with the community.

A nurse's concerns

Holly Knox-Perli is a nurse at Monument Health and has a child in the District. She’s been encouraging her child to wear a mask at school, but said they haven’t been for fear of being bullied for it. Working at Monument, though, Knox-Perli is watching the cases and hospitalizations increase in real time and said it is only a matter of time until she tells her child they have to mask.

Knox-Perli said the most concerning part of the upcoming agenda are the overall intentions of the Board.

“The newest members ran on campaigns of transparency and they’re taking that away,” she told the Journal. “If they aren’t willing to take action to protect staff and our kids, the least we can do is be notified so we can. By taking it away, our hands are all tied, and we don’t know how to protect our kids.”

She said taking away email notifications when a student or staff member at a specific school is COVID-positive is not unique to RCAS as other school districts across the state are performing the same functions.

“It’s infuriating to see. If there’s any knowledge we can have, it’s those emails. It’s all we have, and it’s a misstep to take it away,” Knox-Perli said.

As a nurse who sees the effects of letting a pandemic-inducing virus run rampant in the community every day, she said the lack of meaningful action is harmful.

“If you’re going to do something, do something helpful. Those who aren’t eligible to be vaccinated help spread this whole thing, and you never know who is immunocompromised. We know what can help, but the unwillingness to do anything is maddening,” she said.

Last year, Knox-Perli said she was dissatisfied with the District’s COVID plan, but now she said it is ironic that she found the plan watered down.

“Now, I just want a plan like last year’s. The building leadership and District administration can make calls in real time about the information they’re hearing from the Department of Health, and the Board stays out of it,” she said. “Let the people who want to act, act. The majority of the Board clearly doesn’t want to.”

First Amendment issue

Stephen Demik, a lawyer with children in the District, currently has COVID that he surmises was contracted from his son, who in turn caught it at school. He has been contacted by several parents asking him to look at some of the new policies from a legal standpoint. He told the Journal he thinks a mask mandate is the minimum the school system should do to protect students and staff.

“Not only have they resisted that, but they are actively taking measures to hide information from parents and staff,” he said. “For a group of people who got elected to defend the Constitution, it’s outrageous to me that they’re stifling people’s First Amendment rights and preventing the dissemination of information; that’s everything the Constitution isn’t.”

He acknowledged the necessity to retain one’s personal freedoms, but said it was “outrageous” to let that get in the way of giving people who need it information to keep their families safe — “that’s about as unpatriotic as you can get,” he added.

“I don’t see the harm from having people informed; that doesn’t infringe on anybody’s freedom, but it does infringe on their right to send their kids to school in safe environment,” he said. “Unless something is done about this, COVID is going to spread like a brush fire. It seems like [the Board] won’t be happy until everybody in Rapid City has COVID.”

'A hostile environment'

The turmoil the District is experiencing is driving some teachers to leave RCAS entirely. One high school teacher, who the Journal has agreed to keep anonymous out of concern for retaliation by their employer, has decided to quit their job at the end of the school year. The teacher said several colleagues have come to similar conclusions.

“This COVID thing should influence many teachers to leave. I don’t know why anyone would stay; it’s beyond me. I have heard from a few teachers who are thinking about retiring or leaving teaching entirely because of this. [Teaching in RCAS] has become a hostile environment. It’s not sustainable; it’s too stressful,” the teacher told the Journal.

The teacher is concerned with unsafe working practices associated with COVID and said they have considered contacting the state Department of Labor & Regulation about it. They said only two or three students a class have been wearing masks and only a handful of teachers are, including themselves.

The teacher is vaccinated, but their child, who is a toddler and cannot get vaccinated, is at risk if they bring home COVID from school. They are frustrated and angry all the time now, the teacher said.

“I’m mad at everybody. Rapid City should have turned out to vote. These people ran with bad intentions, and they won and now we’re seeing the ramifications. Now parents and teachers have started to notice that something bad is up, but it’s too late,” they said.

Another teacher in the District, whose identity was confirmed by the Journal and will remain anonymous, has multiple children in different schools and has a spouse who is a teacher as well. Email notifications are relevant for their family to get real-time information on what’s happening in their schools. The teacher said their family has been basing masking decisions off of the level of cases in each school.

“Without that information, it’s hard to make an informed decision. If you’re all about parent choice, it’s hard to make that decision,” they said.

Jason Tinant has a child in RCAS and is an environmental engineering professor at a local college. He spoke during public comment at the Board’s Aug. 23 meeting about the need to follow scientific facts. He said there has been a lot of discussion about individual rights, but a lot less attention on social responsibility to the community at large. When mitigation measures aren’t implemented, parents who want to protect their children have less agency to do so.

“It’s a challenging space. I don’t have any direct levers to pull [to change things],” he said.

Policy changes defended

Area 3 Board Representative and 1st Vice President Gabe Doney said the reasoning behind the changes to email notifications doesn’t have to do with necessity, rather, a streamlining of responsibilities.

“We are not a medical facility, we are an educational facility — people need to start remembering that,” he said. He added that the changes the Board made to the back-to-school plan at the Aug. 23 meeting were not very drastic, it just involved modifying some language.

“From what we’ve heard and from the questions we’ve asked, it didn’t matter [what] the nurses or Department of Health did, there was going to be problems” with the contact tracing system, he said. Even with school nurses helping to contact trace, there is still a lag in information getting out to parents.

“We felt it was a state job, and that we should let the nurses do what they’re meant to do on a daily basis,” Doney said. “[Contact tracing] puts a lot on the nurses, because they’re trying to make calls at 10 and 11 p.m. after working since 7 a.m. Give parents the choice: they can get their kids tested or keep them home. Give them the choice on what’s best for their family.”

Another option

Board Representatives Clay Colombe and Amy Policky, Areas 5 and 6, respectively, are introducing a  separate resolution to implement a temporary two-week mask mandate to help curb the spread of cases. Colombe said cases are rising too quickly in the school system and it would be better to have a mask mandate and keep children in school rather than shut schools down for a week or so.

Policky added the Board has received many emails from medical providers asking them to reinstate precautions because the local health system is already so overtaxed.

Colombe and Policky don’t support getting rid of COVID email notifications. Colombe said he’s heard stories from parents that it can take up to 72 hours to be reached by the state DOH regarding a positive case or a close contact.

“It doesn’t give our families quick access to information about sending their kids to school. If the mandate doesn’t pass, we need to give them all the tools so they can make an informed decision,” he said.

Policky said while it is the state’s job to contact trace, the state cannot sustain quick communication with the high volume of cases it is experiencing.

“We need to do our part to help mitigate the spread from this latest outbreak,” she said. “Our ability to contact trace immediately versus waiting for the DOH allows us to keep students who are ill at home at the beginning of their illness rather than waiting.”

Policky said if the revision passes, she will propose the COVID dashboard needs to have more complete information about cases in individual school buildings so parents have ability to make choices about their families’ safety.

Requests for comment from other board members and Board President Kate Thomas were not returned by press time.

The full board agenda  can be found on the RCAS website under the “Board of Education” tab.

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