The Rapid City Area Schools Board of Education heard six public comments at their Monday night Zoom meeting about differing opinions from parents and educators about when schools would reopen, but a formal action by the board won’t be taken until late July or early August.
Superintendent Lori Simon said surveys from staff and parents will be reviewed at the next school district task force meeting on Thursday morning, and the group will bring a final recommendation to the school board by the end of July or first week of August.
The board heard public comments first from Sue Podoll, a teacher in the district and the president of the Rapid City Education Association. Podoll said “there isn’t a teacher in this district that doesn’t want to be back to school with our kids,” but that the teachers all want to go back safely.
“‘Safely’ means we have the support, materials, supplies and the plan that ensures we are not risking our health and the health and safety of our students and colleagues,” Podoll said.
Florence Thompson, president of South Dakota Parents Involved in Education and a retired school psychologist, said the media is hyping up the coronavirus and that the pandemic is extremely politicized.
Thompson also said “children are at very low risk for COVID-19” and “adults are more vulnerable.”
“There is no risk to children. They have more risk driving to and from school, walking to and from school, than they do from COVID-19,” Thompson said. “If the teachers are in such poor health that their immune systems are so bad that they can’t take the risk to be there, then they should be put on some kind of disability and find another job.”
Holly Perli, a parent in the district and a registered nurse specializing in immunosuppressed patients and intensive care, said she doesn’t feel there’s a way to proceed with in-person learning without more money, more space and more time.
“I don’t have to tell any of you that we don’t have those things,” Perli said to the board. “I hope that you do not ask us to risk our kids, to risk our adult friends and colleagues in the buildings, and to risk the health of our families when we come home.”
Jackie Waldie, a former RCAS teacher, said she’s “confused and torn” about what’s best for her children for the year.
Waldie said she believes her children need to be back at school with their friends and teachers but fears that classrooms are overcrowded, there’s a shortage of substitute teachers, and many children in the district are immunocompromised.
“I have quite a bit of concern about what’s going to happen to our infrastructure if suddenly there’s a case in our schools,” she said. “My concerns lie with what online learning will look like. Being on Zoom for eight hours a day watching live classroom programs is something that is just not feasible for working parents and not feasible for a student and their attention span.”
Justin Speck, a teacher at Central High School, said a survey was sent out to staff to garner their concerns about the school year and hear their recommendations.
Speck said that there was a deadline on the survey to let the human resources department know about any concerns they had personally and to answer a yes/no question about whether they’d return to work. The deadline for that question to be answered is Friday.
“My issue with that is if we don’t know when school is starting and what that is going to look like, it is difficult for teachers to plan their life on Friday’s deadline,” Speck said.
He said a school administrator told him staff may qualify for the Family and Medical Leave Act up to 12 weeks. If that runs out, Speck said staff are responsible for taking their own sick days. When the sick days run out, Speck said an administrator told him that “the next step is resignation.”
“I was shocked by that, to know those repercussions for this Friday deadline,” he said. “If we say 'yes' and there’s a potential spike in COVID-19 cases after the rally or the Central States Fair are we allowed to change our mind?”
Simon responded to Speck’s question and said the Friday deadline was a question for staff that have underlying health conditions themselves or in a household family member that they think would “prohibit them from physically being back in the school setting.”
“That’s important information for us to have. That really does need to be a private conversation with someone in” human resources, Simon said.
Synova Nicolaisen, director of human resources for the school district, responded to Speck’s questions at the meeting and said the survey was meant to garner more information from staff about their concerns for going back.
Nicolaisen also said the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and leave of absences are also available to staff.
“The last thing we want is to lose good employees, but the district can only do so much without it being undue hardship on the district,” she said. “We certainly don’t want to go down that route unless it’s absolutely necessary. We want to try to make sure we can do everything we can to not only make our students safe, but our staff safe.”
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