After a great deal of public input, the Yankton School Board voted Tuesday to require masking on school property until case numbers fall locally.
Masking will be required in all school buildings, regardless of vaccination status, until community spread of COVID-19 in the county falls to a “moderate” level as defined by the South Dakota Department of Health (DOH) and remains there or lower for two weeks.
After the two-week buffer period, masking will not be required and only resumes if community spread rises to either substantial or higher.
Moderate spread, according to the DOH, can be defined two ways: 10-49 cases per 100,000 people or a weekly PCR test positivity rate of 5-7.9%.
Yankton County is currently being classified by the DOH as having “high” community spread or 100 cases or more per 100,000 people or a weekly PCR test positivity rate of 10% or greater, according to the DOH online COVID portal.
Yankton School Board President Jill Sternquist told the Press & Dakotan that the move was a way to bridge the gap between what health care experts were recommending and what some parents at Tuesday’s meeting wanted.
“A lot of our parents are wondering, ‘Are we going to wear a mask forever?’ I think this was a way for us to try to decrease the spread and exposure, since our numbers are high and we’re having increased cases right now, but gives us the option to pull that back when the cases subside.”
The vote was made after nearly two hours of comments from doctors, nurses, parents and community members speaking both for and against the idea of a mask mandate.
There were two microphones, one on either side of the Yankton High School (YHS) theater, and each speaker was given a maximum of three minutes.
“Just a reminder that we are all neighbors and friends and there are going to be people that don’t agree,” Sternquist told attendees. “But, we hope we all agree that we all love our children and want them to get a good education.”
Yankton Police Chief Jason Foote said he welcomed participants’ opinions as long as the dialog was civil.
“Not everybody gets their way. Life goes on,” he said. “The biggest thing is that we can show our kids and this community, as well as the rest of the state, that we can be civil and agree to disagree without causing any issues.”
Many of those who opposed the implementation of a mask mandate sat together, wore red to show their numbers and cheered, applauded and gave standing ovations to various speakers.
Representatives from the Yankton Medical Clinic, including pediatricians David Withrow and April Willman, were asked to open public comment time.
Withrow, a member of the Yankton School District’s Health Advisory Committee, began with a rundown of pandemic numbers, saying that more than 650,000 Americans have died of COVID since the pandemic began, that more than 2,000 of those were in South Dakota, including his wife’s cousin, Teri Thomas of Parkston.
“So this is real. This isn’t make-believe. This isn’t political. This isn’t black or white. Coronavirus is real,” he said, adding that the Delta variant is twice as contagious as the original strain of COVID-19. “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the best public health measure anybody can do here is to be immunized. But, for children less than 12, that’s not an option. The second best strategy, they say, is wearing a mask.”
Dr. Willman picked up where he left off, reminding attendees that, as pediatricians, she and Withrow are motivated to help children grow up healthy.
“Everybody wants kids to stay in school. It’s best for them, it’s best for us, it’s best for everybody,” she said. “It’s harder for kids to be home and schools to shut down. It’s happening all over the country. It’s going to happen here.”
The next speaker, Cindy Konopasek, began by thanking the “medical people of Yankton” and then saying they were fear mongering.
“I’d like to add, you fine people here in front (indicating the school board) are fear mongering by staying six feet apart, while the rest of us aren’t,” she said. “Why, we had Riverboat Days this past weekend — everybody shoulder to shoulder — but when it comes time to being in front of the public, to do the ‘public good,’ which we might as well call communism and socialism, we put on a face, we put on a show.”
She reminded them that they took an oath to the federal and state constitutions, and then she read the First Amendment.
“You do not have the right — you people that are school board members — do not have the right to create any mandate,” she said. “And it doesn’t matter if you have Avera behind you or Yankton Medical Clinic or Sanford, because you know what? Money is behind all this. It has nothing to do with the health of the children. It’s money.”
Several parents addressed the school board saying that by implementing a mask mandate, the school board was taking away their freedom to choose for their own children.
Stacey Nickels of Yankton echoed those sentiments and encouraged parents to take their children out of the Yankton School District if a mask mandate was implemented.
“Every single school around us is not masking the children,” she said. “You can choose to homeschool or you can choose to do online learning through Vermillion, through Black Hills State University. You have choices and you do not have to succumb if they decide to mask your children.”
Over the weekend, Mount Marty University implemented a mask recommendation for all public spaces campus wide. Students without masks can be asked to leave the classroom or other public space.
“There was a huge Canadian court victory which proves COVID-19 is a hoax and all restrictions have been dropped,” one masking opponent said. “There was a court case. They wanted to have a sample of the virus. They could not produce it … They asked the CDC to send them a sample of the virus. They said, ‘We don’t have one. We cannot send you a sample.’ If they can’t send a sample, how can there be a virus?”
Several parents wanted their children to see others’ smiles and were worried about their mental well-being, while others asked why athletes weren’t required to mask during play last year.
“Nothing stopped anyone from going out and doing sports the entire year, wrestling one on one. I can tell you there’s no social distancing on the wrestling mat,” said one man. “But yet, you can go the whole season through that … because a team sport is more important than the kids that are in school.”
Family Medicine doctor Jordan Schild of the Yankton Medical Clinic told the group about his experienced with COVID patients who were young, healthy and had no underlying conditions.
“I believe if more people did wear masks, we could reduce transmission,” he said. “I believe that they are safe, and last year we almost wiped out influenza. I saw two cases. It just kind of tells you about how infectious COVID really is.”
Audible laughter was heard throughout the auditorium during that portion of his speech.
One person who spoke for a mask mandate told the board that the reason there were not many people there to support a mandate was because the majority of the Yankton School District families trusted the school board to make the best decision for its students.
The motion passed 4-1 with Kathy Greeneway voting against.