Truancy, COVID-19 testing concerns for district

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BROOKINGS – The Brookings School District is dealing with truancy issues with a significant portion of its remote learning students not submitting homework and not contacting their teachers. 

The Brookings School Board last week also discussed issues surrounding new COVID-19 rapid testing devices given to districts via the South Dakota Department of Health. 

The board on Oct. 13 also approved a settlement agreement between the district and Gray Construction.

Truancy issues

“I did want to highlight a meeting that I had with the State’s Attorney’s Office, and it’s highlighting truancy concerns in the district. And what we are finding is that a number of families and students that have opted for remote learning that are not engaged at a level that we would have not anticipated nor expected,” Superintendent Klint Willert told the board last week.

“The administrators are going to be working on a process map to follow through on relative to student engagement or – frankly – the lack thereof when it comes to our remote or distance learners,” Willert said.

The number of students behind or having had limited to no response to their teachers is “alarming,” Willert said. There are no statistics yet as to the percentage of currently truant remote-learners, but Willert said the district administration is compiling that information.

“We know that the truancy process has been historically provided when we had school in session, but we equally are planning to apply the expectation for participation and engagement to the online and remote learners,” Willert explained.

Willert said the state’s attorney told him the current truancy policies in place do not need any modification as they apply to all students, including in remote learning circumstances. Attendance counts the same for attending online classes as it would if the student were sitting in the classroom itself.

The online program used by remote learners tracks the pace by which students are completing their homework and whether they are keeping pace to complete their materials in time. 

“It’s virtually impossible for a student to log into a computer device on, let’s say for example today, Tuesday, and complete the (entire) course by Friday. That’s just impractical, and that’s where we want to communicate out to parents and students as well because then maybe this false sense of ‘well, I’ll get it done eventually,’” Willert said.

Rapid testing

The South Dakota Department of Health is issuing new rapid-testing devices that allows school districts to test students and faculty members for COVID-19 and have results within 15 minutes. The device is called The BinaxNOW COVID Ag Card. 

According to the information provided at the Oct. 13 meeting by the SDDOH, “The BinaxNOW COVID Ag Card is a point-of-care, rapid antigen test that provides results in as little as 15 minutes. This test is designed for use in patients during the acute phase of infection, or during the first seven days of symptom onset. Use of these tests should be reserved for instances where a positive result would direct immediate decisions or infection control measures. For example, in a school setting, a positive result should trigger isolation of the patient and corresponding COVID-19 mitigation procedures.”

The district is moving forward with accepting the BinaxNOW systems, Willert said in an interview with the Register this week. But Willert also said the district does not feel equipped to become a testing center and that this is a paradoxical situation where students and staff would be encouraged to come to schools to test for something they’re actively trying to prevent within schools.

“There are some reservations,” said Willert at the meeting, “like how do we manage testing? Because they want testing of symptomatic individuals, but the question is are we going to be in a position where we’re almost encouraging children who are ill (to come to school) so they can get a rapid COVID test or not.”

School board members expressed their concerns with at-school testing, as well. Questions arose about directly exposing staff members to COVID-19, the cost of protective gear, actively bringing possibly-infected individuals into the schools, the difficulty of getting consent from parents, and the accuracy of the tests.

“Even if someone tests negative, they would have to follow our processes of being removed from the school. Even without a positive COVID test, we still don’t want sick children or teachers at school,” Willert said. “We are not a health care clinic.”

For now, Willert said the Brookings district will have these tests, but there is the strong potential – if the district’s questions are not answered sufficiently – for the district to pull out of the program and not offer the rapid testing option.

Settlement agreement

The school board last week voted to approve an agreement between the district and Gray Construction, the contractor in charge of the remodeling and expansion at Mickelson Middle School that had significant construction delays and even pushed back the start of classes at MMS last fall.

Director of Business Services Brian Lueders said in an email to the Register that the agreement is not yet ready for public notice as the parties still need to sign the document.

“The agreement was arrived at through a mutually agreed upon mediation process, and the process took place here in Brookings and it was a day-long of deliberation among the parties involved and the mediator. And ultimately arrived at an agreement that took into account what the district still had in terms of obligation to Gray for work that was done – so we still owed money for work that was done until we had sorted some of the other details,” Willert told the Register. 

“The outcome was really focused on the damages the district incurred relative to the delays in the start of school. And there were a number of different factors that contributed to that that, but at the end there was the acknowledgement that we had some impact that was disruptive to our operation as a district, and that was recognized in the mediation process, and that’s how we arrived at the conclusion that we did,” Willert said.

Contact Matthew Rhodes at [email protected]


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