BROOKINGS – The Brookings School Board voted 4-0 Monday to move to Phase II in the Bobcat Tracks: Back to the Classroom Plan.
While face masks have been optional since the start of the school year in Phase I, the move to Phase II means that, starting Wednesday, face masks will be “strongly recommended” in the Brookings School District.
School Board Member Van Fishback was absent from the meeting.
A handful of audience members offered public comments early in the meeting, mostly in opposition to COVID-19 mitigation strategies.
The board later discussed the recommended move to Phase II at length, asking Superintendent Klint Willert some of the details surrounding the phase change. These included when the phase change would occur (Wednesday) and what the process would be for another phase change, in either direction.
“It is a team decision that we will bring forward. The team takes input from the buildings. We have the principal advisory councils that should be having those discussions. Our principals talk to their nurses daily, multiple times throughout the day,” Willert said. “There is a lot of that type of communication in more informal channels, and that would all be brought together. We would assess what’s going on, our whole team, and then bring forward a recommendation to the board accordingly.”
School Board member Debra DeBates said she speaks to local health experts regularly, and they recommend a mask mandate. The hundreds of emails she’s received from district patrons show about a 60-40 split, favoring masks, she added.
“For me, to move from Phase I to Phase II is minimal,” DeBates said. “Because I don’t know that strongly recommend is going to change anyone’s behavior. I really don’t. That’s my opinion.
“I’ve also heard that kids are being treated unfairly if they wear a mask. I just want everyone to respect each other,” DeBates added. “That’s what I think is the most important aspect of this.”
School Board member Keli Books had some questions about contact tracing that would take place in the next phase. Books was concerned about the time and effectiveness of contact tracing.
“I want children in school,” Books said. “People can think both ways about that, but I just want some reflections on the contact tracing and those guidelines.”
The Bobcat Tracks Plan states that contact tracing is initiated when “close contacts” are within a 6-foot radius from someone who has tested positive for more than 15 minutes. This includes the two days prior to the onset of symptoms for any person who tests positive.
Willert explained that the director of curriculum and instruction for the district, Michelle Vande Weerd is in charge of contact tracing.
“(Vande Weerd) is spending a significant amount of time interfacing with the South Dakota Department of Health, with building-level administrators, with nurses, to go through this process of contact tracing,” Willert said. “I believe it is important that we do that because it helps us monitor what is happening within our community.”
Willert explained further that he is worried about the teaching profession as a whole, citing staffing issues across the country.
“I believe we are beginning to take for granted the time, the energy, and the effort that our professional educators put in each and every day to make a difference in the lives of our kids,” Willert said. “I’ve lived through a double-suicide. Who do the parents call on when that happens? It’s the teachers. We need to remember that. We need to remember that they are a part of our community as much as anybody.”
“I’m not going to sugar coat it. I know our staff is divided. I know our community is divided. Our state’s divided, our country’s divided. But we have a choice in how we navigate this together, and that’s what we have to end up doing,” Willert continued, asking people to lift each other up.
“Are mistakes going to be made as we go through this process? Absolutely, but it’s not for lack of trying. With that being said, I stand by the recommendation that we have forwarded to the board this evening, but also understand that our heads aren’t in the sand. Our ears are listening to everybody. Nobody’s being paid off. Nobody’s being bribed. Nobody’s being coerced. We’re doing the best we can with the information that we have at this given time,” he added.
The Phase II portion of the plan includes “reinforcing everyday preventative actions, ensuring proper ventilation within school facilities, including buses and maintaining cleaning and disinfection practices remain important. Monitor absenteeism among teachers, staff and students to identify trends and determine if absences are due to COVID-19, symptoms that led to quarantine, concerns about being in the school environment and personal health and safety, or positive test results. Anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 should stay home and self-isolate for the timeframe recommended by public health officials.”
The full Bobcat Tracks Back to the Classroom Plan can be viewed at https://www.brookings.k12.sd.us/cms/lib/SD01816867/Centricity/Domain/4/BobcatTracksPlan-Latest%20Revisions9921.pdf.
Contact Addison DeHaven at [email protected]