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School board approves amended COVID plan

There were 44 students and teachers already infected with COVID-19 by Rapid City Area Schools’ first day of the new school year on Tuesday. Thirteen are staff members and 31 are students, with nine staff and 71 students in quarantine.

Superintendent Lori Simon said at a Board of Education meeting Monday night there are more cases than there were at this time last year, when there were only 28 cases by the first day.

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

Simon said there were 1,246 cases throughout the 2020-21 school year, but none of the cases that were contracted at school were between people wearing masks.

“If we’re seeing numbers increase from 36 into the hundreds in one week’s time, that’s cause for alarm for me because that’s not what we saw last year, we saw a gradual growth in numbers,” she said.

Despite growing infection numbers in the District and state, and a small but vocal group of parents, teachers and medical professionals pleading for the opposite, the school board voted down the District’s quarantine plan for the 2021-22 school year. The quarantine plan updated protocols included in the back-to-school plan and established that contact tracing would be conducted by the state Department of Health, who would then contact those who need to quarantine. The resolution failed on a 5-2 vote, with board members Amy Policky and Clay Colombe voting to adopt it.

Later in the meeting, the board approved the District’s back-to-school plan, required for all public school districts applying to receive federal funding for COVID-19 recovery. That plan was edited from the original version compiled by Simon in the spring, as new board members did not agree with many of the stipulations such as quarantine and close contact procedures and rapid testing availability. Though the Board voted not to adopt the quarantine procedures, those same procedures are included in the approved plan.

The revised plan, in addition to stopping the District from performing contact tracing and asking students to quarantine if they are exposed to COVID, also:

  • Changes language around masking to say face masks are “voluntary” rather than “recommended,”
  • Removes social distancing and physical barriers to allow for distancing,
  • Removes daily health screenings at school as a requirement,
  • Tells families that vaccination is a personal choice,
  • Prohibits bullying related to masking,
  • Makes hand sanitizer optional,
  • Asks, rather than requires, that visitors make an appointment before coming to a school building, and
  • Allows students to drink from water fountains with their mouths rather than using a water bottle.

The revised plan passed 6-1, with Policky voting no because of the change in masking language.

The revision had originally also denied the District the ability to perform COVID tests or give take home tests to families, but Policky proposed an amendment to add that provision back in. Other board members approved so long as the policy stipulated that written parent permission is needed to test a student for COVID.

“We believe that the schools are not a health care facility, they are an education center. So if you believe that you have COVID and you would like to go and get tested, it is suggested that you make an appointment with your physician as any other test,” Board President Kate Thomas said. “We are not a testing facility. It comes, basically, down to your choice for health. And the education system, the school district is not where you go to find out about your health.”

Policky argued that it would be logical to offer COVID tests to those who choose to use them. Testing in schools is convenient for teachers who would otherwise have to take time off to go get tested and for families who may not have time to take their students to get tested after school. The Department of Health offered the tests to the District free of charge and parents have the freedom to choose not to use them, she said.

“I don’t know why we wouldn’t allow this for students, especially our staff since we’re so understaffed this year. We have this available to us at no cost, we have the resources, so I don’t see why we wouldn’t do this,” Colombe added.

The testing policy was added back into the plan with unanimous approval from the Board.

Dozens of members of the public attended the board meeting, held at Rapid City High School’s auditorium to accommodate the influx of attendees, some of whom shared their fears about what the upcoming school year could look like with stripped down COVID safety protocols. Public comment was extended to 45 minutes so the 45 speakers could each have one minute to talk.

Justin Herreman, a father with an immunocompromised child enrolled in RCAS, asked the Board if they had taken into account the multiple letters written to them by local physicians concerned about the lack of COVID protocols, and quoted a study predicting 80% of students will contract COVID-19 within the first 90 days of school if no precautions are taken.

“When children start to die, you will be personally liable and held accountable,” he said. “I thought you had a ‘students first’ platform. Are you really thinking about students first?”

Michael Birkeland, a statistics teacher at Central High School, told the board that he spent the last school year consoling students who were afraid of dying of COVID and who had family members and friends die from the virus.

“I’m so thankful that none of you have lost a family member [to COVID]… but to sit up here and say that this is all fake when it’s very, very real for so many of our students, it’s just downright disrespectful. Please don’t act like it’s fake. Our teachers are scared, our teachers are burned out,” Birkeland said.

Natalie Slack, a former school board candidate, read a letter from local immunologist Dr. Halie Anderson urging the board to reinstate COVID precautions. Slack said Anderson and others in the medical community feel their concerns have gone ignored by the Board.

“Our pediatric beds are nearing capacity and we do not have the infrastructure in this community for pediatric intensive care. We feel strongly that keeping students and staff safe and physically present in school should be a major community goal, with that in mind, I urge you to consider re-implementing the strategies used last school year,” Slack read in Anderson’s letter.

While a small faction of attendees advocated for masking and increased COVID precautions, even more people showed up to support the board in ridding the District of some of its COVID policies.

Kirstin Mitzel thanked the board for allowing students and families to make their own choices regarding masking and vaccination. She said masks are detrimental to children’s health (which has been disproven by medical studies) and that they are ineffective (also disproven by multiple studies).

Casey Giardino, a father of two children at Canyon Lake Elementary School, said masking did not help his children last school year. Giardino told the board he pulled his children out of school halfway through the year because of the required masking.

“I know it’s mixed science, but it seems like we’re going along with this on faith, you know? Like what the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] says, it’s faith. There’s no studies that back what they’re saying — that’s a religion. If they have studies that come out that explain it, I’m OK with it,” Giardino said.

There are several studies that show masking is effective in preventing the spread of COVID and public health professionals say that public, widespread mask wearing is the most effective way to reduce the spread of the virus besides vaccination.

Michael Turgen, a former security officer at RCAS, said that last year students “suffered immensely” under mask mandates and called the COVID vaccine a “biological weapon.”

“These kids suffered oxygen deprivation, they couldn’t focus, it drove them crazy. It was hard to enforce as a security officer,” he said.

The Board’s next meeting is scheduled for Sept. 7, where it will discuss the Board policy for emergency school cancellations. Some board members want to remove the provision allowing the superintendent to cancel school for health reasons to prevent another prolonged closure due to the pandemic.

PLEASE SEE PAGE A8 FOR BACK-TO-SCHOOL PHOTOS

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