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West River school districts' COVID plans vary

Rapid City summer school

Students use computers at a summer school program offered by the Rapid City school system in an attempt to stay on track or catch up on learning missed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In order to have access to federal funding for COVID-19 recovery, all school districts are required to prepare a plan to ensure students' and staff’s safe return to in-person learning and continuity of services.

All West River schools are complying with this so far, and each has prepared a plan with similar considerations in advance of the 2021-22 school year.

At its Aug. 9 Board of Education meeting, Rapid City Area Schools’ Board members critiqued the RCAS plan, saying it was not approved by the Board before being released and that it had laid out too many mitigation strategies, which members thought unnecessary. The Board will re-evaluate the District’s COVID-19 strategy at its next meeting on Aug. 23.

Other school districts in the area have stuck to similar recommendations from last year, opting to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the South Dakota Department of Health.

All school districts will begin the school year with in-person instruction, subject to change based on the level of COVID spread. Masks aren’t required in any of the districts unless active infections in school buildings increase enough to where masking is necessary.

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.

Douglas School District

Douglas’s back to school plan was approved Aug. 9 by its Board of Education and school begins Aug. 25. The Douglas District’s primary goal is to keep students attending school in-person all year with as regular a schedule as possible. The plan mentions that the state’s restrictions are less strict and will increase the risk of infection.

“However, we realize as the state relaxes restrictions, the risk of infection and the corresponding need to follow health guidelines increases,” the plan reads.

The school district will promote COVID-19 vaccination as well as “consistent and correct” mask use.

There will be four phases determined by the increase in countywide case counts that will guide the District’s instruction, with the first phase representing minimal increase in cases and the fourth representing a 91% or higher increase in cases. Under this plan, schools wouldn’t need to move to distance learning until Phase 4 and masks wouldn’t be required until Phase 3. On school buses, masks are required by Phase 2.

Visitors will be allowed in Douglas schools until Phase 3, and during Phase 2 visitors are allowed but required to wear a mask. Spectators for extracurricular activities are allowed at Phase 1, limited for Phase 2, and further limited for Phase 3.

Lunchtime procedures will gradually become more stringent as the District progresses through the phases, and self-serve options won’t be available after Phase 2. Staff are required to wear masks during lunch service at Phase 3, at which point bagged lunches will be delivered to classrooms and students will eat in their classrooms. Breakfast and lunch combo meals will be available for drive-up service at Douglas Middle School during Phase 4.

The Douglas plan asks parents to discuss COVID-related changes with their child and reinforce that the measures are in place to keep them and their classmates healthy. It emphasizes that parents have a right to keep their child at home at any time as they assess the risks for their families.

“Understand that these guidelines are determined by health, educational and civic professionals commissioned to care for your child, considering the physical environment, time spent in school, and the potential risk to the health of our students, staff and families,” the plan reads, and “please reinforce the importance of respecting the authority of teachers and staff to maintain order in the classroom, the hallway, and other campus areas.”

The full plan can be accessed on the Douglas School District website.

Meade School District

The plan for the Meade School District in Meade County was approved on Aug. 16 by its Board of Education with the intent to review the plan as needed throughout the school year. The plan acknowledges that it “can and probably will” change throughout the year, but like Douglas, Meade County intends to keep its students in school in-person for the entire year. Meade County starts school Aug. 30.

Meade has established four operational phases and corresponding colors for buildings with 150 or more students — Green, White, Orange, and Red — which determine the school district’s response to rising COVID cases.

Phase I (Green) represents little to no COVID infections, and Phase IV (Red) represents substantial cases, classified as 5% or greater of students and staff per building out sick. Buildings with less than 150 students will move between phases based on each building’s individual circumstances.

Masks are recommended until Phase III (Orange), and the last phase requires a special Board of Education meeting to consider alternate methods of educational delivery.

Meade is following the state DOH’s guidelines for quarantine procedures for students and staff, which includes contact tracing within the District and following close contact quarantine protocols. Meade School District will update positive case numbers by building level weekly on its website.

Beginning at Phase II (White), mitigation strategies like social distancing, recommended mask wearing, cleaning procedures and proper ventilation will be implemented, and visitors to campuses will be limited. Students and teachers will remain in cohort groups that stay together as much as possible each day to limit close contacts.

Moving into the Orange phase, face masks become required if social distancing cannot be achieved, visitors will not be allowed, and activities involving large groups of people like assemblies or field trips will be suspended.

The last phase, Red, may require closing schools, which would necessitate a special board meeting to determine an alternate mode of instruction.

Extracurricular activities will be maintained as much as possible and will follow the same guidance as the regular school day. During mealtime, social distancing is encouraged and staff could implement alternative seating arrangements or locations to allow for distance.

Immunocompromised students have the opportunity to participate in virtual learning, pending approval from the superintendent.

COVID vaccination is not required, but it is recommended for eligible students, and the plan reminds parents it is “vital” that students get all other, required vaccinations on time. Meade highly encourages its students to get an influenza vaccination, as well.

The full plan can be accessed on the Meade School District website.

Hill City School District

Hill City Schools’ COVID plan features three phases and recommends masks at all levels. Phase 1 is defined by no or limited active cases in buildings, Phase 2 by 6-7% of students and staff infected on any one campus, and Phase 3 by 10-12% of students and staff infected, although the plan acknowledges circumstances will determine a phase more so than percentages. School starts Aug. 23.

Masks would be required at Phase 2 if social distancing isn’t possible and classes and mealtimes will have seating charts. No outside groups will be able to use school facilities, and extracurricular activity attendance will be limited to four tickets per participant.

There’s no plan for Phase 3 yet; the state DOH will work with the school district to create an action plan if there is a substantial increase in cases. Phase 3 could also be initiated if there are not enough staff members or substitutes to cover classes.

The DOH will work with Hill City Schools to perform contact tracing to identify close contacts at all levels. Students identified as close contacts must quarantine for a minimum of 72 hours from the last exposure and can return to school if they are symptom-free. If a student lives with a COVID-positive person, that student must quarantine for seven-10 days and monitor their symptoms for two weeks. Students can return after seven days with a negative COVID test.

Students, staff and visitors will also check their temperatures after entering a building using a wall-mounted thermometer during every phase. The District will perform typical mitigation strategies like sneeze guards and increased cleaning as well as increasing air intake by 20% using new air filters.

In the event school must move to virtual instruction, all students except kindergartners will be assigned a laptop and an email address to communicate with teachers.

Hill City Schools also has continued home-bound instruction for immunocompromised students, but those students cannot participate in extracurricular activities and must commit to homebound instruction on a quarterly basis (every nine weeks). Additionally, not all classes are available online.

During mealtime, students should try to social distance in line, and school staff may keep students in cohort groups or have assigned seating in the cafeteria.

Hill City outlines special guidance for teachers, noting during Phases 1 and 2 teachers are required to submit digital artifacts of daily lessons so students can access material online, introduce and model digital platforms in the event they become necessary, and break content into “manageable chunks.” The plan also states students’ workloads should not include weekend work to ensure better student engagement and that for each class, all weekly graded assignments should be due on the same day.

During Phase 3, teachers are expected to maintain contact with their students by meeting virtually at least twice a week and remaining available during school hours.

Like Meade, Hill City emphasized in its plan that immunizations are required to be maintained and not skipped due to the pandemic.

The full plan can be accessed on the Hill City School District website.

Spearfish School District

Spearfish Schools’ COVID plan was approved by its Board of Education on Aug. 9, with a review planned for December. It is the only district in the Rapid City area without phases for mitigation strategy implementation. Spearfish starts school Aug. 25.

Masks are not required at any point but are recommended, and the same goes for COVID vaccines. In the event of an increase in cases, the administration may send an alert to strongly recommend mask wearing, and if there’s a significant increase, administration may ask the Board to require masks temporarily. Daily health screenings will not be required, and diagnostic testing will be available with resources from the health department.

The District will continue close contact investigations and recommend close contacts quarantine and advises students and staff stay home “when appropriate.” Any student or staff member with a household member who tested positive for COVID will be required to quarantine for 10 days.

Visitors with appointments will be allowed and all school facilities will be available for outside use.

Increased cleaning procedures will be implemented, including using outside air in HVAC systems to flush out the system with fresh air.

During mealtime, physical distancing is encouraged as well as implementing alternate seating arrangements. If remote learning becomes necessary, meals will be provided through a single pick-up location.

Remote learning, if it becomes necessary, will look different at each grade level. Every teacher in grades kindergarten through 8th grade will have a Google Classroom set up for their classroom, and grades K-5 will use Pearson Realize for the embedded online core curriculum resource. Every teacher in grades 9 through 12 will set up their course sections in Google Classroom or Moodle. Every teacher in Kindergarten through 5th grade will use ClassDojo to communicate with students and parents, and every teacher in 6th through 12th grade will use email. The Remind app may also be used to communicate with students and parents.

Virtual learning is available for immunocompromised students, with their performance evaluated each semester. Virtual learning students will still be allowed to participate in extracurricular activities and will still be required to take state assessments.

The full plan can be accessed on the Spearfish School District website.

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