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More districts prepare for COVID as school year begins

Back to school

Students in Joann Beckman's fifth-grade class look through their new planners for the upcoming school year at Corral Drive Elementary School in 2018.

Any public school district eligible for federal funding for COVID-19 recovery is required to prepare a plan to ensure students' and staff’s safe return to in-person learning and continuity of services. West River public schools are complying with this so far, and each has prepared a plan for the 2021-22 school year. Additionally, though it does not qualify for federal public school funds, the Rapid City Catholic School system has developed a plan for the return to safe in-person instruction.

All school districts will begin the school year in-person, subject to change based on the level of COVID spread, and extracurricular activities such as sports will still take place. Masks aren’t required in any of the districts to begin the school year, but if infections increase some districts may choose to require them. No school district requires vaccination against COVID-19, but many are strongly recommending the influenza vaccine for students.

All districts recommend parents screen students for COVID symptoms before sending them to school, and all district plans ensure continuation of special education services, tutoring and credit recovery, and emotional/mental health services regardless of the mode of instruction. All districts regularly consult with the state Department of Health for contact tracing and school closure decisions.

Each district’s plan can be found on its website.

Rapid City Catholic Schools

Rapid City’s Catholic school system — comprised of St. Elizabeth Seton School, St. Thomas More Middle and High Schools — created a COVID-19 plan for the 2019-20 school year and will be using a lot of the same strategies outlined in that plan for this year’s response, according to Superintendent Barbara Honeycutt.

The school year, which begins Wednesday, will begin with face masks strongly recommended but still optional. The school system has informed parents that could change if the situation warrants more stringent measures, Honeycutt said.

System-wide, schools have improved ventilation systems and will routinely clean and disinfect areas. Schools will emphasize hand washing and respiratory etiquette like covering mouth and nose while coughing or sneezing, and students who become ill during the school day will be isolated and tested for COVID. The school nurse will work with the state Department of Health to identify close contacts; close contacts are still required to quarantine for 10 days. Rapid City Catholic Schools have rapid antigen testing kits available from the DOH and will offer over-the-counter testing kits to families for at-home testing.

“Like all school districts, we’re monitoring this daily. Our plan is fluid and things could change,” Honeycutt said. “We’re hoping for the best.”

Lead-Deadwood School District

Lead-Deadwood is preparing three models to switch between in the event of rising COVID infections in its district: a Back to Normal model, a Remote Learning model, and a blended model consisting of both in-person and remote instruction.

“We need to be prepared to be able to switch back and forth, and we need to be able to transition quickly,” according to Lead-Deadwood School District’s plan.

The normal model will strive to recreate normal school year conditions, with the addition of social distancing and enhanced cleaning measures. Remote learning will build off of the remote learning experience from last school year if it becomes necessary.

Under the normal model, classrooms will maximize social distancing, masks will be optional, and there will be consistent, scheduled times for hand washing and hygiene procedures. New students will have the opportunity to take part in laptop orientation to train them in Microsoft 365 and Microsoft Teams in case remote learning becomes necessary. The school district will follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for self-isolation and quarantine for close contacts and infected students and staff.

Lead-Deadwood will only return to remote learning in the event that extreme situations pose a threat to student and staff safety. Microsoft teams will be used as centralized online learning platform for the district and students will use it throughout the school year in preparation. Student work will be assessed by gauging the student’s learning progress so as not to unduly negatively affect final grades.

Custer School District

Custer will start the school year with four days of in-person instruction, Monday through Thursday. The Custer School District has created three operational categories to move between depending on the number of COVID cases and the level of transmission.

In general, the district will have isolation and screening rooms designated in each building and will keep other mitigation measures in place such as sneeze guards and increased cleaning. Buses will have assigned seating, and seating will be reconfigured to achieve physical distancing in classrooms. There will be more serving times and staggered lunch times to socially distance. Visitors will be limited to parents and by-appointment only. Large gatherings will be allowed with distancing. The district will use DOH procedures for quarantine and self-isolation.

Category One features no confirmed cases in the school district and no confirmed cases that have originated from outside the school. In this category, close contacts will be allowed to attend school with a mask and are required to undergo daily wellness checks with a school nurse for 10 days.

In Category One, masks are encouraged for all students and staff, but anyone exhibiting mild symptoms of COVID will need to wear one.

In Category Two there are confirmed cases in the school district with traceable spread, increasing the level of precautions the district will implement. In the second category, face masks are required. If a close contact and an infected person are both wearing masks, the close contact does not need to be sent home, but is required to do daily wellness checks for the next 10 days.

In Category Three, schools will close and students will engage in distance learning. Grades K-4 will use SeeSaw and grades 5-12 will use Google Classroom for online learning.

Hot Springs School District

Hot Springs School District, like Custer, will begin the school year with four days of in-person instruction. Hot Springs’ COVID plan  has four levels — on-campus learning, on-campus plus extra accommodations, hybrid learning and remote learning. Online learning will be available for any student not ready to return to in-person schooling.

Masks are strongly recommended at Levels One and Two but become required at Level Three. In Level Two, masks are required in “mask zones” during classroom activities that require close proximity to others.

Level One, no to low community spread, is as close to a normal school year as possible with social distancing added. Level Two is characterized by low to moderate community spread with no cases in the school system, adds staggered lunch and recess times and ceases allowing outside visitors to schools.

During Level Three, there are cases in school and high risk of community spread, so areas used by infected people will be closed off and cleaned and possible school closures could occur. Meals are served with disposable products and students are further distanced during mealtimes.

The school district will recommend closure in Level Four, which is characterized by multiple active infections of COVID within 14 days of the first identified active case. During Level Four, students will not attend school but staff will still report to the building. For remote learning, students in grades 6-12 will receive laptops and complete assignments on Edgenuity. Elementary students will use Google Classroom, and paper packets will also be posted online for students to submit via email or drop off in person at the school.

Belle Fourche School District

The Belle Fourche School District has outlined three phases of school operations: traditional in-person learning with no cases in the building, blended learning with isolated cases, and virtual learning with substantial cases. There is an option for virtual instruction for students who do not want to attend in-person.

In general, social distancing will be observed and students and staff will remain in small groups that stay together throughout the day. Essential visitors will be limited to the front lobby and large gatherings and off-campus events will be limited or suspended entirely. Face masks will be strongly encouraged.

If a student becomes ill during the school day, they will go to a designated isolation area until they go home and follow DOH guidance on when it is safe to return to school.

In the event online learning is necessary, students in grades K-8 will use Canvas and students in 9-12 will use Schoology and Acellus. Students will have a district device to use at home if schools are closed.

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