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Tea Area schools mask up amid highest-ever covid rates

Published: Jan. 12, 2022 at 8:14 PM CST
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - In the last week, school districts in Vermillion, and Worthington began re-enforcing mask mandates for all students, faculty, staff for the first time this school year, and on Wednesday, Tea Area joined that group.

Superintendent Jennifer Lowery said she implemented the mandate based on the plan set by the district’s covid response team, which is comprised of medical experts and school board members. It decided before the school year that a 1 percent positive covid test rate district-wide would warrant masks, and Tuesday, Tea went over that threshold.

It marks the highest covid rate in Tea Area schools since the pandemic started, and Lowery says illnesses and absences have made educating tough on everyone.

“We have teachers supporting during their open periods, teachers taking double classrooms,” Lowery said. “We have students not getting their specials - which is, in the elementary, P.E. and library.”

So, to prevent a schools shutdown and the dread of returning of virtual learning - which no educator nor most students want - masks are the final resort.

“We knew we had to do it,” Tea Area advanced calculus teacher and teaching instructor Laura Berg said. “Cases were building up and up. We just can’t keep going on, and if we want things to keep working for us, this is our next step.”

Lowery said mask wearing is politically charged, and she has heard complaints from “some angry people,” but for the most part, teachers, students, and staff are our board, citing 70 percent of those who filled a district survey over the summer felt favorably about the 1 percent threshold mask mandate.

“I have to truly say that I’ve done everything possible to keep our doors open and to do what I can to help the hospital system,” Lowery said. “I have a doctorate in education. I don’t have a doctorate in medicine, so (preventing virus spread) is what (medical systems) are asking me to do.

“From a layman’s point of view, COVID-19 is a respiratory infection. And I’ve been in enough classrooms, from a high school teacher to many years to (being a) mom. Kids sneeze. Kids cough on each other, and so when we can keep some of the germs to ourselves -- I’m going to trust the leaders of Sanford and Avera, who lead very prosperous and quality care.”

So, what was Day One back in the mask world like?

“It had no impact this morning, Berg said. “My kids still came in like normal. They were wearing their masks... They chose to wear their masks they know the importance of working together.”

Prior to the mandate, Berg said Tea Area High School, where she teaches, had kids who chose to wear masks when it wasn’t required. Some of them have activities coming up that they don’t want to miss due to illness, and they trusted that masks would aid that.

“Waking up this morning, I had three of my own kids going to school,” Berg said. “They’re like, ‘we just got to find them, mom, where’s our masks.’ It was no different from last year.”

Berg, who spends at least half of each day instructing and meeting with other teachers, said every educator she knows wanted the mask mandate, knowing both them and their students would be safer.

Lowery said she’s received minimal complaints from parents, and is proud of how the Tea community has come together on the issue.

Her advice to other education leaders who struggle in their decision to impose mask wearing if covid cases sprout like they have in Tea:

“Help each other and be kind,” Lowery said. “Leadership is difficult and its lonely, but I slept OK last night. When I do everything I can to help children and the system, I don’t take that lightly. And, I know that the fellow leaders here don’t take that lightly.”

The mask mandate will last for at least two weeks, when the 1 percent covid case threshold will be reviewed again by district leaders.

Harrisburg’s benchmark is 2 percent positive cases in buildings, so two of its schools are also under a mask mandate, and there was another one earlier this year.

The Sioux Falls nor Brandon Valley districts have taken that measure this year, based on their protocols, but both emphasized in statements to Dakota News Now that masks are encouraged.

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