BELLE FOURCHE –– With COVID-19 cases declining in the area, the Belle Fourche School Board Monday agreed to begin allowing anyone to attend school sports and activities, contingent upon the continual monitoring of local case numbers.
Adam Nowowiejski, the district’s activity director, brought the topic to the board after some public fervor related to event attendance.
“I just know that everybody … is getting pressure about the restrictions that are currently in place,” he said. “And the public essentially feels that our (COVID-19) numbers, as far as how low they are … constitutes opening up our facilities.”
In November, the board voted to adopt a new activity protocol related to the amount of people allowed to attend school-related events in person.
The board opted to take the middle ground, adopting a policy that would restrict visitorship while still allowing some fans to take place in the activity in person. Then, in December, the district opted to amend the plan to allow Belle Fourche staff and high school students to attend without restrictions, as long as they provided their district ID card.
On Monday, Nowowiejski said he did not have a recommendation for the board. Instead, he said he would support whatever the board decided.
“I’m in favor of either or; there’s pros and cons to either or,” he said. “But I think that it needs to be one way or the other … either we stay where we are until spring or we open it up to everyone.”
Superintendent Dr. Steve Willard asked Nowowiejski what neighboring communities are doing now that the COVID-19 cases are lowering again.
Sturgis schools, Nowowiejski said are considering a similar open plan and are inconsistent when following their current COVID-19 activity policies. One example is their current mask mandates for coaches and fans attending events, he said.
“I don’t know how many went to a Sturgis game lately but they are not following that,” Nowowiejski said. “They are very inconsistent with their follow through (compared to) what’s in writing (policies).”
Spearfish is very similar, Nowowiejski said.
“They have something in writing saying that they have vouchers and mask mandates for coaches,” he said. “But, I’ve gone to two events in Spearfish in the last week-and-a-half and they are not following any of those.”
However, Spearfish is currently in its least restrictive of three categories and does not limit fans or mandate masks.
The irregularity, Nowowiejski said is proving to make things difficult for Belle Fourche.
“Which is putting a lot of pressure on everyone involved because there’s no consistency there,” he said. “I’m just looking for consistency within the area.”
Nowowiejski said that should the board opt to open the district’s facilities up to more visitorship, people who may be weary of attending events in person could still watch them online.
“The live stream is working very well right now,” he said.
The topic is not unique to the Northern Hills area.
“This is a hot topic across the state,” Willard said. “I received email traffic from about 30 superintendents, from East River and West River.”
Although the rates of COVID-19 across the nation continue to rise, especially on the coasts, Willard said, the same is not true for the more rural states like South Dakota.
School Nurse Brandi VanSickle told the board that this week, the “numbers are good,” in the school system, with three people positive for the virus and 11-12 quarantining, that she knows of.
Willard suggested the district could reopen its doors to the public during events and monitor the case numbers going forward.
“Then if things surge, we can shut it back down,” he said.
Board Member Scott Reder shared his opinion first.
“Once again, I think the people that are really concerned will watch it (online) … and I think the people that do come know the risks that are involved with that,” he said, adding he’s had people ask him about making the events more open.
Board Member Mike Tyndall agreed.
“If you pull up (to an event) and you see a packed house, you decided if you want to go in, and if you do, there’s still room to sit up in the corners,” he said.
Based on the statistics, Nowowiejski said the district currently resides within the Tier 1 designation. The definition of Tier 1 encompasses steady decreasing rates of community active cases, new cases, and hospitalizations related to COVD-19.
Tier 2 involves a steady incremental increase in the number of community active cases and hospitalizations. Tier 3 is in place for a total lockdown should the community see a “sharp increase” in COVID-19 cases.
Willard said he coordinates with VanSickle on a very regular basis to continually assess the cases within the community and schools and can determine when the school needs to declare it is in another tier.
Following the discussion, the board reached a consensus that it is safe to open up school-related events up to public attendance.
Nowowiejski thanked the board for their guidance.
“I think it gives our fans, parents, our community what they need,” he said.
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