A smattering of COVID-19 cases in March had South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem calling for school closures and the implementation of distance learning options.
Five months later, with more than 900 active cases across the state, 137 deaths and dozens hospitalized, she has, following the president's lead, become an ardent proponent of getting students back into the classroom.
"It's critical for our students' well-being that our schools reopen," she wrote in a column last Friday. "Our kids need to learn, and they learn best in the classroom."
In her column, Noem claims "kids are less likely to contract the virus and less likely to transmit it to others." She further states, "teachers are unlikely to be infected by students."
As students return to their classrooms, school districts will learn firsthand whether the studies Noem cherry-picked to reference were credible. To prepare, they are doing their part to ensure a successful school year for students enrolled in their districts.
Oldham-Ramona: Keeping things normal
Oldham-Ramona, one of the most recent to adopt a safety plan, has a comprehensive, 24-page plan that covers everything from school attendance and health checks at home to using bathrooms in the school building. Still, it begins with a letter to families stating, "It is understood that this plan cannot cover the myriad of events that may arise."
"It's a fluid plan. It's more than likely going to change," Superintendent Mike Fischer said, reiterating that idea.
He explained the state Department of Health and state Department of Labor are working with schools, providing guidance with webinars, but the information provided is changing.
Recognizing this, district administrators have a clear goal in mind as they approach the Aug. 17 start date.
"We're going to try to start educating the kids as normally as possible for as long as possible," Fischer said.
Still, the landscape will look different. Social distancing is being implemented in the classrooms. Masks are on the school supply list and are being encouraged but not required.
Parents are asked to conduct health checks on their children prior to sending them to school. A questionnaire is included in the safety plan to provide them with guidance for doing this.
Among other changes, meal service is changing and visitors to the building are being limited. But most importantly, students and staff are encouraged to stay home if they are sick.
"The plan is designed for the health and safety of our students and staff," Fischer explained.
While concerned about the myriad issues related to a possible COVID-19 outbreak in the school -- such as how to maintain student privacy while informing those who may have been exposed -- those concerns do not outweigh Fischer's focus on the identified goal.
"Hopefully, we can keep our students in the building, keep our teachers in the building and keep things as normal as possible," he said.
Rutland School: Communication is key
Brian Brosnahan is facing not only his first year as school superintendent but also a challenge that has more experienced administrators exploring new territory: implementing mitigation practices and protocols to limit the spread of COVID-19. In doing so, he's emphasizing the importance of good communication.
"I want to be as transparent as I can be as far as our plans," he said.
The Rutland School District's safety plan was posted on the school website in late July and includes an introductory letter that notes the evolving nature of both the situation and the information available to school districts.
"Please note that all portions of our reopening plans are fluid and can change at a moment's notice with new information or recommendations," Brosnahan wrote to parents.
He encourages families to contact him if they have questions or concerns about the school's plan. He wants to not only acknowledge their concerns but also address them.
"We can have these critical conversations about what is worrying them and work toward a solution," he explained.
According to the school calendar, classes will begin on Aug. 24. The school's 19-page plan includes information about daily activities, such as transportation, meals and physical distancing, and a chart outlining what families can expect depending upon the tier of operations.
With no confirmed cases, Rutland School will be open with precautions in place. If there are confirmed cases at the building level, precautions will increase. If there is community spread within a classroom or grade level, precautions will significantly increase. Should there be significant community spread, the building will close and e-learning will be substituted for in-person instruction.
Initially, face masks will be encouraged but not required. Brosnahan said this provides the school with another way of increasing student and staff safety should an individual test positive at some point.
"I really feel that if you start school with a situation where there's nowhere else to go, you have no place to go," he saud.
Brosnahan takes comfort in knowing that the school district is already practicing many of the safety precautions recommended for schools that have confirmed positive cases.
"We do want to do everything we can to provide kids with a safe environment," he said, to help students to grow socially, emotionally and educationally.
"We want to do everything we can not to have to shut down," he said.
Chester Area: PPE being provided
Chester Area School Superintendent Heath Larson is giving members of his staff a care package as school starts this year: a cloth face mask, a clear face shield and hand sanitizer. While staff is not required to wear PPE, it is recommended, especially where physical distancing is difficult.
Students, too, will find the district is providing them with protection they have not needed in previous years.
"Each student will receive for use during the day their own portable desk barrier," Larson said.
Designed and manufactured at Rustic Acres Hutterite Colony, these can be carried from classroom to classroom. They will be used in conjunction with other precautions to increase classroom safety.
The school district's 26-page safety plan indicates seating will be arranged to allow for maximum physical distancing and will be turned to face in the same direction. In addition, students will have assigned seating to track virus spread if a student tests positive, and each student's personal belongings will be kept separated from every other student's.
"We know it's going to be a challenge, but we know the benefits to the kids to be in-person," Larson said.
The Chester safety plan, which also makes note of "the fluidity of the situation" and indicates changes may be necessary, provides three options for instruction. The school will start with Plan A: traditional, in-person instruction. This appears to be a safe option because no students involved in school's summer programs, whether athletic or instructional, have tested positive for COVID-19.
Should the DOH recommend limiting the number of people in the building at any given time, Chester is prepared to move to Plan B, which would involve a blended format. Half of the students would attend classes on Monday and Wednesday, the other half on Tuesday and Thursday. All students would be expected to engage in virtual class days when not in the building.
"We tried to build our plan with flexibility," Larson explained. The underlying goal is to maintain continuity in learning.
Plan C would involve closing the building and moving to an on-line format again. This is not the most desirable option, though, he said.
"We have staff and kids that are excited to be back in school," Larson said.
Classes will start in Chester on Aug. 19.