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Governor wants South Dakota schools open with no mask mandate

Gov. Kristi Noem said masks are impractical.
/ Source: AP (Associated Press)

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem on Tuesday said she will push for schools to stay open this fall, but disparaged any requirements for children to wear masks in classrooms.

As parents and school boards cautiously weigh the risks and benefits of schools reopening, the Republican governor emphasized the educational and social upside of a return to in-person learning, citing research that COVID-19 poses less of a threat to children. But Noem appears selective in the research she uses for her decisions, pointing to studies that indicate a low health risk from the virus, while downplaying scientific findings that show masks could slow the spread of the disease.

“We cannot sacrifice the educational, physical, emotional and social well-being of our kids. The risks of COVID are too minimal for us to make sure that they’re all going to stay home,” Noem said at a news conference at John Harris Elementary in Sioux Falls

Noem said forcing children to wear masks is impractical and may lead to infections spreading if children touch their faces more frequently. Her stance on masks defies a push from the South Dakota State Medical Association to require face masks in schools.

The governor cast doubt on a broad consensus in the medical community, including from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that wearing a mask could prevent the spread of the coronavirus, saying there is “very mixed research and the science has not proven what’s effective and what isn’t.”

Meanwhile, CDC guidance on reopening schools appears to support Noem’s assertion that the benefits of in-person schooling outweigh the health risks. So far, fewer school-aged children have died of COVID-19 than flu-related deaths during each of the last five flu seasons, and “studies suggest that COVID-19 transmission among children in schools may be low,” the agency said.

The governor has repeatedly said she is committed to making decisions based on science. When a reporter asked her how she prioritizes the barrage of research to inform her decisions, Noem said: “I am reading it all. And that is why we’ve been challenged because it’s been all over the map.”

The governor said it’s clear that children should be in school. Some school administrators have reported as many as 30% of students not participating in online learning, she said, while the lack of contact with classmates particularly affects vulnerable and low-income children.

Noem said the case for children being in school is so compelling that she is not even considering recommendations that schools close if there is a resurgence of the virus.

“I believe that we’ve learned so much about this virus and how to deal with it that we’re in a situation where that’s not something we’re looking at today,” the governor said.

The South Dakota Education Association, which lobbies for teachers, said in a statement that it agrees with Noem that in-person learning is preferable. It urged her to allot money for more school counselors to help students handle trauma related to the pandemic.

South Dakota schools have received $47 million in federal coronavirus funding. Noem said she expected more to come from the state and federal governments.

As for masks, that decision will remain with local school boards. It will likely leave a patchwork of local regulations similar to how cities enacted business restrictions during the onset of the pandemic in March.

South Dakota Democratic party chair Randy Seiler released a statement after Noem’s news conference, saying schools have had “a complete lack of guidance from our governor.”

He said, “Requiring masks and social distancing should have been the minimum model required from both the governor’s and State Health Department’s office.”

Some school districts are requiring face coverings, others are hoping students and families follow recommendations to wear them. The state’s largest school district in Sioux Falls said it plans to have an “expectation” to wear face coverings but that it won’t enforce a politically heated mandate.

Meanwhile, Jessica Peterson, the 5th-grade teacher who hosted Noem’s news conference in her classroom, had her husband build plastic barriers at the tables where students will be sitting in a few weeks. She said she’s just trying to stop the pandemic from entering her classroom.