SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Representatives of South Dakota school boards, administrators and teachers told lawmakers on Wednesday that trying to manage coronavirus infections among students and staff has so far been a “nightmare.”
As the number of coronavirus infections in schools has grown, administrators have found themselves trying to balance keeping schools open, protecting students and staff and considering the legal liability they could face if they don’t do enough to prevent infections, said Wade Pogany, the director of the Associated School Boards of South Dakota.
Administrators have taken on the extra work of assisting contact tracing investigations from the Department of Health to keep track of which students could be exposed to someone with an infection. Pogany called an “overwhelming process” that has heaped stress on school staff trying to keep classrooms open.
“It’s just a nightmare,” he said.
There have been 667 cases among students and staff in South Dakota’s schools, ranging from kindergarten through high school, according to the most recent count from the Department of Health. Over 450 of those cases have fully recovered.
“It feels like the Department of Health is overwhelmed with everything and the follow through with contact tracing is falling behind,” said Loren Paul, president of South Dakota Education Association, a group that represents teachers.
The Department of Health released a statement that said it rejected that claim. It currently has over 275 people working on case investigation and contact tracing. To handle increasing case numbers, it has added 100 staff in the past month.
Health officials reported eight new deaths and 297 new cases of coronavirus on Wednesday. Over the past two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new cases has decreased by 93, a decrease of 29 percent. But the state has still ranked second in the country in new cases per capita over that time period, with nearly 368 new cases per 100,000 people.
Health officials have said that many of the cases have been linked to younger people as universities and schools reopened.
A committee of lawmakers focused on the state’s education systems received public input on Wednesday as they cast about for ideas to assist the state’s COVID-19 response. Lobbyists from the state’s school districts made a pitch for more funds, flexibility to spend the money into next year and legislative protection from liability if staff or students fall ill or die from COVID-19.
While representatives of the state’s education system said that schools are scrambling to contain infections and stay open, one education activist, Florence Thompson, president of South Dakota Parents Involved in Education, said that concerns about the coronavirus are overblown and schools should be incentivized to stay open.
The state’s schools have been granted $116 million so far in federal funds to address the pandemic, but education groups said they would continue to need funding through the spring.