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S.D. American Academy of Pediatrics sends letter to school boards asking for mask mandates

Jim Hansen, Kate Thomas and Gabe Doney

Board Second Vice President Jim Hansen (from left), Board President Kate Thomas, and Board First Vice President Gabe Doney listen to public comment at an RCAS school board meeting.

More than 100 South Dakota medical professionals and the American Academy of Pediatrics sent a letter to school boards statewide asking them to consider reinstating mask mandates.

The letter was sent to school boards statewide Wednesday, including the Rapid City Area Schools Board of Education. Earlier this week at its regularly scheduled meeting, the Board voted to pare down the COVID-19 mitigation strategies the District would take during the 2021-22 school year to prevent the spread of the virus, namely: making mask-wearing voluntary, cutting school-mandated quarantine guidelines, stopping school nurses from internal contact tracing, and removing social distancing measures.

This week is the first week of school for RCAS, and cases have doubled in the less than a week since school began. At the Board meeting Monday night, before the first day of school Tuesday, Rapid City Area Schools Superintendent Dr. Lori Simon said there were 36 cases among RCAS students and staff.

By Tuesday, that number went up to 44 students and staff, and by Wednesday, the count was up to 70 students and staff, with dozens more in quarantine. In contrast, there were only 28 COVID cases by the first day of school last year.

“I have to be candid in saying I am concerned at the large number of student cases that we have, and we haven’t even started school yet,” Simon said at Monday’s meeting.

She said if the numbers continue to dramatically increase she would come back to the board with a recommendation for a temporary mask mandate.

The RCAS School Board has been vocal in its dissent against mask mandates, instead advocating for families to choose what is best for the health of their children.

The letter commends school boards for keeping schools open last year and says the co-signers fully support decisions to open schools in person this year, but that they recognize there is a significant risk to students, staff, and the wider community if sufficient mitigation strategies are not implemented. The letter specifically cited universal mask-wearing as the most effective strategy.

Simon gave the RCAS Board concrete evidence of mask effectiveness on Monday, telling them that of the 1,246 students that were infected with COVID last school year, not one of those cases originated from people who wore masks.

“The universal use of masks is safe, inexpensive, and is a simple strategy to prevent the spread of Covid within the schools’ walls,” the letter states. “Masks alone were likely responsible for the extremely low secondary transmission rates of COVID-19 in schools across the country, despite high rates of community transmission of COVID-19. If no other mitigation strategies are used, masks alone may be able to keep our schools operational as we are beginning the next surge of COVID-19 in our region.”

The letter lays out six realities for schools to consider this academic year:

  1. Children under 12 are not approved for the COVID vaccine yet, so they are susceptible to COVID and all of the impacts that come with an infection;
  2. The number of children who are eligible to receive a COVID vaccine who have received one is well below the threshold to prevent the spread in schools: only 28% of 12- to 15-year-olds, 34% of 16- to 17-year-olds, and 38% of 18- to 24-year-olds have been vaccinated;
  3. The Delta variant — the most contagious strain of COVID yet — is the most common in the United States and will pose a “significant threat” to students and staff, as without preventative strategies Delta will move “very efficiently” through schools and cause illness, school closures, and death;
  4. Other respiratory viruses with similar symptoms to COVID have emerged this summer and, once they enter schools, they will exacerbate problems created by COVID and further disrupt education;
  5. If masking is left to individual choice, it is likely that if masking is not a firm expectation of schools, even children who intend to wear masks will not do so and will undoubtedly cause negative psychological impacts for those who are, or are not, wearing masks, like bullying or other types of harassment; and
  6. Children with COVID can pass it to family members who may be more susceptible to severe illness causing hospitalization and death, and with the Delta variant more children are in need of hospitalization as well.

Medical professionals say universal masking does not disrupt other activities and can actually allow for more normalcy to return to the classroom and urged South Dakota school boards to mandate masks.

In addition to a plethora of individual medical providers and the South Dakota chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the letter was co-signed by Immunized South Dakota and the South Dakota Public Health Association.

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