School board revises Back to School Plan

Screenshot from school board meeting video: Members of the Brookings School Board discuss proposed revisions to the Bobcat Tracks Back to School Plan. The board approved the modifications on a 3-2 vote, and a phase change could be on the school board agenda for Monday’s meeting.

Updated at 10 a.m. Sept. 10

BROOKINGS – The Brookings School Board voted 3-2 Thursday night to approve revisions to the Bobcat Tracks Back to School Plan. The meeting drew a sizeable crowd and prompted the board to convene in the Dakota Prairie Elementary School gymnasium. 

Modifications to the plan include moving required mask-wearing from Phase II to Phase III.

The district remains in Phase I with masks optional, as a recommended phase change was not listed on Thursday’s agenda, but a move to Phase II with masks strongly recommended could be considered as soon as Monday’s school board meeting.

Public comment

The public comment portion of the meeting drew a number of speakers to the microphone, ranging from concerned parents to teachers to physicians. 

Dan Merchant, of Brookings, led off the public comment, explaining that as a concerned parent, he was not going to send his kids to the school system with the current COVID-19 protocols in place.

“I can only deduce that (Superintendent Klint) Willert is unwilling to put a mask mandate in because he’s afraid of families leaving our school district and taking their enrollment dollars to another district. I am disgusted that dollar signs come before my child’s safety,” Merchant said.

“We are very close to the point where this can go horribly wrong. … We need to get ahead of this. The time to act is now,” he added.

Jason Bowes, of Brookings, said that he has been a parent in the district since 2003 and this is his last year, with his youngest son being a senior.

“My message to all you, the school board, administration, superintendent and all the staff is thank you,” Bowes said. “Thank you for how you’ve started this school year.”

Ronda May, of Brookings, thanked the school board and administration for using “good and sound judgement in not making masks mandatory.” She added that singling out Willert wasn’t fair, and she’s concerned about the social and mental health repercussions of masking.

“Our kids’ masks are full of germs; they are pretty disgusting,” May said. “We did wash our son’s mask last year, but I can’t imagine how the elementary students’ were.”

“I understand and respect those who wish to mask, but it should remain a choice and not a requirement,” May added.

Judy Kroll, a retired teacher from Brookings, spoke in favor of masking and asked the board to consider what’s best for most.

“I am definitely in favor of masks because one of the things that you have in this (Bobcat Tracks Plan) says that students and staff safety are our highest priority as we return to school,” Kroll said. “And then, over on the next page, it says face masks will be deemed optional. To me, as a former debate coach, that has a lot of contradictory connotations.

“I hope that you can make the decision that will be a really tough decision to make,” Kroll added.

Eric Toft, a current teacher in the district and a parent to four children, spoke about his grandfather’s passing due to COVID-19, his hesitancy to mask his young children at school, and different risk levels. 

“What I am worried about is when my 5-year-old, who is in junior kindergarten now, that when he is supposed to be exploring the world, he will be told to be afraid of what they touch. That when they are supposed to be meeting little boys and little girls, they will be told that they have to keep their distance. That they have to be afraid of children,” Toft said.

“I am afraid that when they are supposed to be learning social skills, they won’t be able to read each other’s faces. I am worried that when they are supposed to be learning letters and numbers from their teacher and trying to hear her mouthing words, she’ll have a mask on. I am worried that when they are trying to say these letters and words, they’ll be trying to do it for the first time with a mask on,” Toft added.

Kenric Malmberg, a parent and a local physician, spoke next.

“As a physician, I’d also like to point out that there’s another number that’s not very accurate around here. That’s what we think is the actual number of cases in the school district. We’re not testing everybody. We are, in fact, not even testing everybody who is symptomatic,” Malmberg said.

“We have had patients come in, who are sick, and say, ‘No, I refuse to test. My child has this coming up.’ Or, ‘No I don’t want my kids to miss any school. You’re not going to test them.’”

Board discussion

After the public comment portion of the meeting wrapped up, the board discussed the changes to the Bobcat Tracks Plan as presented.

The changes included shifting a mask mandate from Phase II to Phase III, and eliminating the hybrid learning option. 

Other changes to Phase II included implementing mitigation strategies such as “social distancing when possible, reinforcing everyday preventative actions, and maintaining cleaning and disinfections. Scheduled visitors are allowed. Face masks are strongly recommended.” 

Phase III of the plan, according to Willert, would be the same as the plan from the previous school year: pod students in schools and at recess with limited mixing of student and staff groups, eliminating field trips, limiting visitors including spectators at events, and other mitigation efforts. 

There were 18 people involved in plan development and revisions, including all school principals as well as the administration team at the district office. But a Brookings Education Association (BEA) representative noted in the public comment portion of the meeting that teachers were not given an opportunity for input.

School Board Member Debra DeBates said she did not feel comfortable moving forward with the plan revisions without feedback from the BEA. She also said she wanted to take Brookings hospitalizations out of consideration from the plan, since many Brookings patients go directly to Sioux Falls, and she favored putting some sort of quantifiable measurements within the phases.

Board Member Keli Books explained that the plan “will never be perfect” and that further changes could be made in the future.

The board also discussed what a phase change would mean for activities. According to Willert and Activities Director Mike Jewett, a change to Phase III (with masks required) would limit attendance at school-sponsored events, something that happened throughout the entirety of the previous school year.

Ultimately, the plan modifications passed on 3-2 vote, with DeBates and Board Member Van Fishback voting against the revisions. Books, School Board President Mellissa Heermann, and School Board Member Wesley Tschetter voted in favor of the plan.

The next school board meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday at Dakota Prairie. According to Willert, it is possible a phase change could be approved in tandem by the board and the administrative team.

To see the revised plan, visit the school district’s website or log onto https://brookingspublic.ic-board.com/Attachments/3312e79d-9189-4e6a-bc98-94448ac0d2eb.pdf and https://brookingspublic.ic-board.com/Attachments/e1ddb3e4-e50e-45c5-a995-e146c2e1a9fc.pdf.

Contact Addison DeHaven at [email protected].

Editor's note: The spelling of Ronda May's name has been corrected in the article.

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