BROOKINGS – The Brookings School Board unanimously approved a plan Thursday to start the school year Aug. 31 with face-to-face instruction five days a week for all grade levels.
Face masks will be mandatory for students, staff and visitors, with physical distancing and hand washing/sanitizing efforts in place.
According to the plan, parents have until Aug. 7 to decide, via a survey from the district, if they would prefer to have their children learn remotely from home. Those choosing to opt out of in-school instruction will not be able to opt back into class until the start of the next semester.
Officials say staying in the school buildings is not necessarily a permanent plan. If COVID-19 cases in Brookings County or the schools spike, the district can move to a hybrid learning model or even directly to remote/distance learning.
BSD administrators unveiled a draft back-to-school plan July 20, with four separate phases to determine how the district operates, based on the status of the active COVID-19 cases in Brookings County and surrounding areas.
The phases, which have been updated since then, range from an entirely face-to-face learning model to a district closure with remote/distance learning.
Superintendent Klint Willert said after several meetings and conversations with concerned parents, teachers and the state Department of Health, his team concluded that it would be best to initially implement face-to-face learning for the beginning of the school year. He cited the significant negative impacts remote learning have had on students’ learning capabilities and mental health.
Willert referred to a survey completed by 1,486 parents and 267 staff, including a series of questions about how they felt about certain proposed measures.
When asked about face-to-face learning, 59% of parents said they would prefer their children to be in the school buildings, whereas only 33% of teachers said they would prefer students to come back. Roughly 54% of teachers preferred the hybrid approach to teaching.
When asked if they would prefer remote learning, 86% of parents who took the survey said “no.”
Willert said the Centers for Disease Control updated school districts last week, emphasizing that students need a face-to-face learning method and recommending that schools open their doors. “The concerns for students and their well-being with their mental health was pretty significant,” he said.
Gov. Kristi Noem earlier this week also said she believes students need to be back in class.
Willert said the school district will not screen students for COVID-19 symptoms; instead, the district is asking parents to screen their children every day before sending them to school.
According to Willert’s presentation, cloth masks must be worn when physical distancing of 3-6 feet is not possible. If masks are not clean or otherwise up to standards, the students will be provided with one by the school.
If a student is infected with COVID-19, they are to isolate for 10 days and can only come back if recorded and measured progress of the student’s health is sent to the school district.
Willert said that if and when a student is infected, they will work with the family and the SDDOH for contact tracing.
Yet to be determined is how all student activities (sports and the fine arts) will function and when exactly they will begin their respective seasons.
Willert said virtually every other school district in the state is starting the year with face-to-face instruction.
“There have been a lot of very caring, thoughtful people who have contributed a great deal to put this plan forward, and I hope people understand that while we can’t make something that works for everybody, we try to do something that does work for Brookings,” he said.
The district’s recommendation for face-to-face learning could change, even a few days after South Dakota State University students come to town, but decisions need to be made to allow school scheduling to move forward, Willert added.
Several parents and teachers came to Thursday’s meeting and voiced their praise and concerns for the Bobcat Tracks plan.
Brookings Education Association President Adam Juba said the group is concerned about implementing a face-to-face start to the year.
“Educators want to be back in the classroom with their students, but teachers and staff have serious concerns about the health and safety of their students, fellow staff members and the community as a whole if our district starts the year with a return to traditional learning,” Juba said.
He said the association would prefer a hybrid model due to the impracticality and impossibility of having students in school and adhering to safe COVID-19 standards recommended by the CDC.
Several parents voiced their concerns about the severity of the virus but also spoke about the hardships a remote-learning system causes their students. One parent asked what the point of starting in-person was when she suspected there would be a spike in cases soon enough due to South Dakota State University classes beginning. Another parent said she preferred a face-to-face start to the year because she has a special-needs student who lost all of her progress when she couldn’t be in class at the end of last year.
Local physician Dr. Jennifer Olson said, for minimal risk, maybe officials were going too far, scaring the community and setting a bad precedent with some of the measures they’re taking. COVID-19 has a death rate in the United States of 0.045%, and the average age of those who die from the virus is 78 years old, Olson said.
“A coronavirus is just a family of virus. It’s got a new name and is on the news every day, but in terms of the biology of what it is, that is nothing new. We see coronaviruses and influenza viruses come and go from this community every season.”
“What I would question the community is,” Olson said, “‘What are we afraid of?’ We are afraid of a virus that we’re hearing about and seeing all of these reminders of. But when you take the masks and the plexiglass and all the social distancing things away, are we really seeing the impact of this virus? … We do not do this for any other illness,” she said of asking healthy people to stay home and wear masks.
Matt Olson asked about children who do not wear masks because their parents are not making them wear one. Willert said masks are required in schools, and those who refuse to wear one will have to opt for remote learning.
The school district has had “significant acquisitions” of hand sanitizer and other forms of personal protective equipment, Willert said. The district has also hired additional janitorial staff to help sanitize buildings over the weekends.
Before voting to approve the plan, each board member said they were appreciative of the feedback they have received from community members. However, due to the politicization of the virus and the methods of counteracting it, the board said there’s no way everyone will be truly satisfied with the outcome.
“I’m not as convinced as Dr. Olson is that this is not something that is tremendously serious that could affect our staff and our students,” board member Roger DeGroot said. “I take it real personal,” he said, referring to relatives headed back to school soon.
For more information about the Bobcat Tracks Plan, visit https://agendas.brookings.k12.sd.us. To watch Thursday’s meeting, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_CSZoQXa9ss.
Contact Matthew Rhodes at [email protected]