Concerned parents on both sides of the aisle turned out in droves for Tuesday night’s Rapid City Area Schools Board of Education meeting. Parents participated in protests both for and against increased COVID mitigation measures before the meeting in front of Rapid City High School.
Willis Sutliff, a retired physician with grandchildren in the District, came out to protest before the meeting because COVID is “a matter of life and death.”
“We’ve gotta deal with the Delta variant. It is awful, it is sweeping the nation. And when you look at the maps of the hotspots, they’re in Pennington County, Meade County, Lawrence County. We are a hot spot for South Dakota,” he told the Journal.
Jenny Read, a former candidate for the Board’s Area 7 seat, currently held by Board President Kate Thomas, helped organize the pro-mask and COVID protocol protest. She said she hoped the protests would bring awareness to the events of the past few months and that people would turn out in larger numbers for the next election.
“Hopefully something like this will show, ‘Oh, we need to make change at the polls first and foremost. Because some of the changes the Board is making right now, they were voted in whether it was a big turnout or not,” she said.
Parents against COVID protocols refused to comment except to say the Journal would “print whatever it wants” and “spin the story.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, RCAS had 35 staff COVID cases and 254 student cases, with 47 staff and 560 students in quarantine. Superintendent Lori Simon, in her remarks, showed the audience a graph comparing the COVID case levels from the 2021-22 school year and the 2020-21 school year to demonstrate how cases have skyrocketed in the first two weeks.
The auditorium in Rapid City High School was standing-room only during the meeting itself, and 70 people signed up for public comment. Public comment was split into two 30-minute sessions, one near the beginning and the other at the end of the meeting, and each speaker was allotted three minutes.
Several times throughout the meeting the crowd erupted into cheering, booing and heckling, prompting both Thomas and Simon to ask attendees to be respectful of their peers.
Two local physicians were allowed to speak separate from public comment, Dr. Trevor Anderson, who was against universal masking for students, and Dr. Stephen Miller, for increased COVID safety protocols.
A group of 58 local medical professionals sent a letter to the Board requesting it adopt clear recommendations around vaccination, masking, testing, and communications between the district and state and local public health authorities. Dozens of those medical providers showed up to share their support for increased mitigation measures.
“The COVID-Delta variant is spreading rapidly amongst children and staff with optional masking and no quarantine measures or contact tracing strategies,” the letter reads. “These infections are also spreading among family and community members. We feel strongly that we need to come together as a community to slow the spread and flatten the curve of spread as much as possible. Schools must continue to take a multi-pronged, layered approach to protect students, teachers, staff, and to keep our community safe. Combining these layers of protection will make in-person learning safe and possible.”
Still, the Board voted 5-2 not to impose a temporary two-week mask mandate. Board representatives Amy Policky and Clay Colombe introduced the resolution and were its lone supporters. Policky said the temporary mandate was needed as cases in schools are higher than this time last year, there is currently a high volume of students absent from school due to COVID, and there are not enough staff to adequately supervise all classes let alone teach them.
“We all hoped to go back to normal this school year. We all hoped COVID was behind us this school year,” Policky said. “We never anticipated that we would have this many cases at the beginning of school. So regardless of our hope, we have to look at our reality. And we heard from the doctors, the reality is the hospitals are full, our schools are taxed… we have to realize we can’t stick with what we promised when we hoped that things were going to be different this year.”
The Board voted 6-0 with Gabe Doney abstaining to further change its COVID-19 plan by removing the District’s COVID email notifications, which notify families and staff of the new cases per school building; rewording social distancing suggestions to say it is encouraged but not required nor prohibited; and clarifying that parental consent for student COVID testing is required.
The COVID cases will now be listed as percentages per school building, and the Board voted 4-2 to include the number of active cases per building on the dashboard and update it every day. Thomas and Representative Deb Baker voted no on that modification.
The Board also voted to delete policies dealing with board governance, the superintendent’s expectations, the school district’s educational results, board-superintendent relations, and student representatives. Thomas said the deleted policies were in direct conflict with existing policies and would cut down on redundancy.
For the student representative policy, Thomas said the board intended to propose a new policy dedicated solely to student representatives rather than doing away with that policy entirely. Previously, the student representative policy was tied to the school board election policy.