Spearfish delays school start

Approximately 100 people attended the Spearfish School Board meeting Wednesday to discuss reopening plans for the 2020-2021 school year. Pioneer photo by Mark Watson

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SPEARFISH — The Spearfish School District will delay the start of the 2020-2021 school year until Sept. 8 amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The decision to do so, moved back from Aug. 27, will allow district leaders to better prepare for the start of school using the restart plan which is anticipated to be approved at the Aug. 10 board meeting. The last day of school will be June 4, 2021 and semester and trimester dates will shift accordingly.

Kirk Easton, superintendent of the Spearfish School District, said the administration need further time to see how many students will attend school virtually and to make staffing plans to those needs. The district is offering virtual instruction to students who may choose to enroll for a variety of reasons — they and their parents may not be comfortable with students attending class in person, or they may feel that it would offer a more uninterrupted learning experience in the event of school closures.

Traditional classroom teachers also need additional time to prepare in case remote learning becomes necessary during the school year.

And lastly, when the plan is adopted by the board, some staff members may choose to leave the district and those positions will need to be filled. Easton said the district is already seeing staffing challenges.

“We have 11 paraprofessional positions open in the special education department, and we’ve had two qualified applicants,” he said.

“I think the best place for kids is back in school. Now how we do that is being debated now,” he added.

Easton also revealed the results of the parent and staff surveys that would help board members with the plan.

From the parent survey, 1,097 responses were received. This represented about 1,800 students or three-quarters of the student body. Eighty-five percent of the parents said they would be sending their children back to school in person this fall, and 15% did not know.

Parents were asked if masks should be worn in school. Fifty-two percent said yes, and 59% said staff members should wear a mask.

Of the parents who said no on either of the mask questions, they were evenly split when asked if kids or staff members should wear masks if a confirmed COVID-19 case were found in the school.

Parents were overwhelmingly opposed to sending their students to school on buses. Only 25% of parents said they would send their students to school on the bus.

In the staff survey the mask issue was fairly even as well, although slightly more, 56%, said students should wear masks.

When the question came to if staff members should wear masks, 65% said yes, and of the 35% of staff members who said no, they were more inclined to say they should wear masks if there were a positive case in the schools.

A little more than 20 people spoke during the public comment section time. All but five spoke in favor of mandating masks being worn in school.

Several physicians from Monument Health encouraged the district to require masks, and 17 sent a combined letter to the district encouraging the same.

“We recommend reopening schools while employing the mitigation strategies detailed in Category 2 of the restart plan. We recommend universal masking for all children and teachers 3rd grade and above. Universal masking has been shown to consistently reduce transmission of the virus, and there is now evidence that masking protects the person wearing the mask, as well as those around him/her,” according to the letter.

Easton noted at the July board meeting, when the restart plan was first discussed, the majority of citizens who spoke, spoke out against wearing masks.

“People say ‘look at the science,’” Easton said. “I’ve seen science that says masks do work, and I’ve seen science that says masks don’t work. Which side do I go? I am one who would like to err on the side of caution.

“I do understand the concerns of the folks who don’t want masks,” he added. “I hear them all, but at some point a person has to take a stance. My stance has to be on the health and welfare of my students, my staff, and the family and to take every precaution possible that we don’t go back to remote learning.”

He said he has weekly meetings with the Department of Education and the Department of Health. New guidance is constantly being given during those meetings. On Wednesday, guidance was given on what products should be used for cleaning and how to use it.

“Those things, if they are not in the restart plan, we will have a plan,” he said.

“Two or three weeks ago I wasn’t sure on masks,” Easton added. “Today, my mind is wrapped around student, staff, and family health, and not going to remote learning. If masks help us avoid going to remote learning, then I don’t know how I can be against it.”

The restart plan, a draft of which can be found at https://bit.ly/2Dk8xew, calls for three operational categories:

• Category 1, zero cases in a school building.

• Category 2, isolated cases in a school building.

• Category 3, substantial cases in a school building.

Category 1 outlines mitigation strategies.

Category 2 puts out more restrictions. Masks are mandatory, some things are canceled, visitors are not allowed.

And Category 3 would force remote learning again.

Easton said that the Department of Health would conduct contact tracing of any students or staff who do test positive, and it is the district’s intent to keep people out of the classrooms to as small of a group as possible, and for as short of a duration as possible.

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This story has been updated to correct the starting and ending dates of school.

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