South Dakota education leaders discuss ripple effects of COVID-19

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The future of K-12 education in South Dakota includes medical marijuana, new social studies standards and the ripple effects of COVID-19.

Those were just a few topics from a wide-ranging discussion featuring Sioux Falls School District Superintendent Jane Stavem and South Dakota Department of Education Secretary Tiffany Sanderson at a Downtown Sioux Falls Rotary meeting Monday afternoon.

Here’s a look at the hot takes about what you need to know from that meeting:

Civics, history initiatives topics to watch

Gov. Kristi Noem signed an executive order Thursday barring DOE officials from applying for federal grants in history or civics.

More: Critical race theory: Gov. Kristi Noem signs executive order banning DOE from federal grants

Sanderson said Monday the DOE never intended to apply for such federal grants.

She pointed to Noem’s $900,000 civics and history initiative as a topic to continue following, as well as revised social studies standards, which will be released Friday for public comment.

More: What will it take for South Dakota to have a culturally responsive civics and history curriculum?

Stavem noted the district’s civics and history curriculum is aligned with state standards, and residents are welcome to check out history books. The district is also working to publish a website that shows what students learn about civics and history.

“We have an opportunity (with the new website) to make those things as visible as possible, because it shouldn’t be any secret what your children are learning in school,” Stavem said.

Medical marijuana depends on various rules

As a public educator, Sanderson said she never expected she would have to talk about medical marijuana in schools. 

The department’s rules on medical marijuana will take effect on the first day of the new school year and will apply only to students. Teachers and other school staff will be subject to the South Dakota Department of Health’s rules, which aren’t finalized yet.

Medical marijuana became legal in the state July 1.

More: Medical marijuana-using students in South Dakota can access their meds in school this fall

For Sioux Falls, Stavem said the district is thinking about things in terms of whether to allow storage of medical marijuana on site. According to DOE rules, districts can provide storage of medical cannabis in a non-smokable form to any student cardholder on campus.

She also said one question remaining is what federal law says about controlled substances and what that means for upholding the spirit of the law, “which only affects a very small number of students.”

“If you’re envisioning an entire room full of kindergartners lining up in the morning for their medicinal marijuana… I don’t think that’s what it’s going to look like,” Stavem said.

Navigating learning in year two of COVID-19

Stavem said when deciding on the district’s latest plan to continue learning in person during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, there were strong opinions on both sides of the mask issue.

The district ultimately chose, in a draft of the plan yet to be approved by the school board, to make masks optional when school starts this fall.

“If you all can figure out how to find agreement around that, please let me know,” Stavem said. “At this point, I’m fairly certain there is no 100% agreement on that.”

More: What to know about the Sioux Falls School District’s ‘Continue to Learn’ plan

The majority of adults and children in schools didn’t wear masks when they were optional in school facilities during the summer, but those individuals might choose differently this school year, Stavem said

More: Masks to be optional for students, staff during Sioux Falls School District’s summer programs

A lot of teachers and students last year “really didn’t get sick very much,” because of the COVID-19 protocols in place, Stavem said, adding there were few instances of moving classes online or closing down a school statewide.

Last year, some protested portions of the district’s plan to return to learning in person for a variety of reasons, including the lack of a mask requirement. Stavem said it wouldn’t surprise her if people protested again for this plan.

More: No masks required: Sioux Falls School District officials say ‘Return to Learn’ plan needs to be flexible

One of the COVID-19 difficulties the district may begin moving away from this school year is quarantine, Stavem said. Students were out for as many as 14 days, and “that is not the best version of learning, no matter what, if you’re not in that classroom with that teacher,” she said.

And between March 2020 and August 2020, families experienced economic hardships like lost jobs, transitions or more. Many students had to work during that time, and some may have stayed working, Stavem said. If those students dropped out, the district lost its ability to track them over time.

“The effects of the pandemic aren’t over just because we’re starting another school year,” Stavem said. “We don’t know what some of those ripples will look like if you go out 10 or 15 years.”

Who are the ‘Lost COVID-19 kids?’

What was most concerning to Sanderson from the DOE’s comprehensive report on COVID-19 in K-12 education, released Thursday, was the extended length of absences from South Dakota’s students, she said.

More: Education department drops first-ever report on COVID-19’s impact in SD schools

In a typical year, 3% of students miss 30 or more days of school, she said.

This year, that figure rose to 6.5%, with about 8,600 students missing six weeks or more of a school year, with the majority of those students being from low-income families, Native American, Hispanic or in special education, Sanderson said.

Some of those are the “lost COVID-19 kids” who educators want to bring back into the fold, Sanderson said. Some students haven’t been connected at all, she said.

This Wednesday, 100 people including educators from K-12 and higher education, nonprofit leaders and more will provide recommendations to the DOE on how to reach out to those students and re-engage them in their education.

Sanderson told the Argus Leader a summit planned for Sioux Falls this week would be a closed, invite-only meeting.

And of the state’s 149 school districts, only 25 saw level enrollments, Sanderson said, noting other districts saw either surprising increases or decreases in enrollment.

Some districts are seeing learning loss for a variety of factors, Sanderson said, and communities should be supportive of where their students are at in their education path and ensure they’re ready for whatever happens after K-12 school.

Teacher workforce

Meanwhile, there’s an ongoing debate about whether school districts will require vaccinations to keep up with staffing.

Sanderson said while some districts across the state are talking about mandatory vaccinations, those are school board decisions, not DOE decisions. She also noted U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidance and religious exemptions exist.

Stavem said the district is not having conversations about vaccine requirements at this point. The district can fill absences if teachers are out sick, but notes rural districts with limited populations may make different decisions if they have limited ways to fill gaps if people become ill.

“Right now, we think that’s a personal choice, and we’ve been encouraging it and providing good information,” Stavem said. “We’ve seen people take advantage of it. We have great health partners in our community. At this point, (vaccine requirements) aren’t needed.”

Workforce challenges in Sioux Falls include open positions in transportation and educational assistants. School Bus Inc., which contracts with the district, has said it’s short as many as 35 bus drivers for this fall.

More: School Bus Inc. short 35 drivers a month before school starts

Statewide, 120 teaching positions are unfilled for the fall, Sanderson said, noting it’s a her goal to work on improving teacher retention and recruitment.

Both Sanderson and Stavem said they’re optimistic for the school year, though.

“COVID-19 is a here and now thing, but our children only have one chance to be a kindergartener, one chance to be a high school senior,” Stavem said. “We want this year to be as wonderful and normal as possible, but we have work to do.”

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