SIOUX FALLS - Governor Kristi Noem spoke in Sioux Falls regarding re-opening schools in South Dakota, speaking very strongly in favor of returning children to school buildings.
“The science is very clear,” Noem stated. “Our children should be in schools.”
The governor cited multiple articles and pieces, some of them opinion articles from sources such as The Hill but also studies from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Journal of American Medical Association Pediatrics.
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.
Noem has pointed to studies and recommendations that indicate the health risks from the virus are less than feared, while also downplaying scientific findings that show masks could help prevent the spread of the disease.
Noem spoke to the studies’ findings that students suffer without the ability to socialize and build emotional management skills in the classroom. She also stated that nearly 1/3 of students were not able to connect to their respective school through remote learning.
The governor expressed that she will not recommend mask wearing, stating that hand washing is the best way to prevent the spread of the virus. She reported that young students will touch the masks frequently and have difficulty keeping them on. Noem also reported that studies showed potential emotional trauma from wearing masks for young students.
Though she presented her views on school reopening, Noem was clear that the decision will ultimately need to rest with individual schools. School districts will need flexibility to make often daily adjustments to plans, per Noem.
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 that masks could help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, saying that there is “very mixed research and the science has not proven what’s effective and what isn’t.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said, “There is increasing evidence that cloth face coverings help prevent people who have COVID-19 from spreading the virus to others.”
Meanwhile, other guidance from the CDC on school re-openings appears to back up Noem’s assertion that the benefits of in-person schooling outweigh the health risks. The CDC has highlighted research that found that so far COVID-19 deaths among school-aged children have been less than flu-related deaths during each of the last five flu seasons. “Studies suggest that COVID-19 transmission among children in schools may be low,” the agency says in its guidance.
The governor has repeatedly said she is committed to making decisions based on the science of the virus. When a reporter asked the governor how she prioritizes the barrage of COVID-19 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.”
What is clear from the governor is that children should be in school. She said that in some instances, school administrators have reported that as many as 30% of students didn’t participate in online learning. The drop-off in contact with children 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 for schools to 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.
As for masks, that decision will remain with local school boards. It will likely leave a patchwork of local regulations similar to how city and county officials enacted business restrictions during the onset of the pandemic in March and April.
Some school districts are requiring face coverings, others are hoping students and families follow recommendations to wear them in school buildings. The state’s largest school district in Sioux Falls said it plans to have an “expectation” to wear face coverings, but will not enforce a politically heated mandate.