Safe Return to Sioux Falls Schools: Remote Learning Until Community Suppresses COVID-19

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We, the undersigned Sioux Falls School District educators, parents, students, and community members, join in demanding a safe return to school for the 2020-2021 academic year. This means that we need to start the school year with remote learning until COVID-19 is more under control in the Sioux Falls community.

We cannot safely, or ethically, return students, teachers, and staff to our school buildings during a worldwide pandemic. If we began with in-person schooling, we would essentially be performing an experiment on our own children, hoping for the best. This is not a chance we should be willing to take; we should be erring on the side of caution in order to save lives and protect our future. Our teachers and students should not be called upon to save our community, even though that is often what we are unfairly asked to do as educators. It is time for our community and our leaders to step up and take this opportunity to protect our children. We, the Sioux Falls community, can be like the bison that circle around their young when a threat approaches. 

As Pam Belluck so perfectly summarizes in The Daily's episode The Science of School Reopenings, "It's a very precarious situation. And most experts would say, get your community under control, and then open your schools slowly, incrementally, with lots of safeguards in place. And then you'll have a good formula for keeping things under control... Maybe, it will light a fire under communities and get places where they weren't wearing masks and they weren't social distancing to take that seriously. What better goal could there be than getting things together so your school can open safely."

Since our Sioux Falls community got our percent positive test rate down in June (~6% weekly average) and then started to reopen, our averages are creeping back up, such that our average weekly percent positive rate is now 9% (and trending upward). We should be driving this metric down, not letting it rebound. This shows that we as a community need to recommit to stopping the spread of COVID-19 with as much focus and energy, but hopefully less disruption, as we did this spring. What could motivate Sioux Falls to do this? A plan that links percent positive testing rates in our community to re-opening the schools.

Here’s the basic proposal:

  1. No in-person schooling until the weekly percent positive rate is < 3%.
  2. When the weekly percent positive rate averages <3% for 2 weeks, in-person schooling can resume with regular COVID-19 testing of teachers and students, universal (this means mandated) mask wearing inside, social distancing, smaller class sizes (<15 students), lots of outdoor time, air filters when possible, and any other recommendations deemed necessary.
  3. When the weekly percent positive rate averages <1% for 2 weeks, social distancing measures can be relaxed, but masks are still required inside.
  4. When there are zero new coronavirus cases for 2 weeks, then we can start the conversation about lifting the mask restriction, provided testing of teachers continues to occur on a regular basis.

**Throughout all of this, we also need to have a stakeholder process for re-opening and determining safety protocols that includes public health experts, classroom teachers, administrators, frontline staff, parents/primary caregivers, and students across a wide racial and socioeconomic spectrum. Decision-making needs to be informed by public health best practices, including but not limited to the CDC, state, and local health experts. There need to be safety protocols and protections, as well as increased mental health supports for all Sioux Falls School District students, families, teachers, and staff. Lastly, there needs to be transparency and open communication with the Sioux Falls School District community: students, educators, staff, parents/primary caregivers, and various other stakeholders.

Here’s the background for why these are the proposed targets.

An article from Science Magazine entitled School Openings Across Globe Suggest Ways to Keep Coronavirus at Bay, Despite Outbreaks states: "When Science looked at reopening strategies from South Africa to Finland to Israel, some encouraging patterns emerged. Together, they suggest a combination of keeping student groups small and requiring masks and some social distancing helps keep schools and communities safe, and that younger children rarely spread the virus to one another or bring it home. But opening safely, experts agree, isn’t just about the adjustments a school makes. It’s also about how much virus is circulating in the community, which affects the likelihood that students and staff will bring COVID-19 into their classrooms."

This aspect (i.e. the viral activity in the community) of these school openings is being too quickly looked over. The studies keep pointing to European openings without clearly stating that their countries have taken much more drastic measures than the US has in order to get their overall virus activity down. Here's some data to consider regarding virus activity in the US vs. the world.

The positivity testing rate is the most important metric to consider in understanding virus activity. An article from NPR entitled As Coronavirus Surges, How Much Testing Does Your State Need To Subdue The Virus? explains how having a percent positive testing rate less than 10% is considered a "mitigation" testing level, and having a rate less than 3% is considered a "suppression" level. Getting to a suppression level in Sioux Falls is key in opening up schools in a way that somewhat resembles "normal."

As of July 18, Canada, Australia, and most of Western Europe (including Italy and Spain) have a positive testing rate <2%, South Korea's is at 0.2%, China's isn't reported, and the US is at 8.7% ( But the US is a big place and we know that Florida, Texas, and Arizona are accounting for most of the current surge now, so how does Sioux Falls fair? This week our rate is 9%. In April and May, the Sioux Falls positive rate was between 13-36%; after mid-May the testing rate stayed below 12%, but as noted before, there is a clear upward trend in the data. When many of the European countries reopened elementary schools in May, their positive testing rate was <3%, and today many are <1% and <2%. We in Sioux Falls are not doing what we need to be doing in the community to have safe school openings.

We need to get our community to average <3% for 2 consecutive weeks before we can safely open schools back up to in-person learning. If we can give the goal teeth by linking school openings to this metric, then we could make some serious progress quickly. How do we do it in our community? Universal mask wearing inside. Increasing testing. Possibly closing indoor seating at restaurants and bars. Another shutdown due to outbreaks in our schools will not be good for kids, parents, families, or our economy. Let’s take this opportunity to protect our students and teachers, which in turn protects our entire city.

So, what we're asking is this:

  • To make a plan to get Sioux Falls's percent positive test rate to <3% on our way to zero cases, which includes:
    • Percent positive test rates based on diagnostic molecular testing.
    • Meet stated goal of testing 5% of South Dakota’s population each month
      (~11,000 per week; at least 5,000 in Sioux Falls area).
    • Regular surveillance testing for teachers and students.
    • Testing results need to be provided to individuals within 2 days.
    • Commitment to test and trace all individuals affected by outbreaks.
    • Promote universal mask wearing indoors, either through business cooperation or city mandate.
    • Create a positive community campaign including schools, arts groups, downtown shops, hospitals, businesses, sports teams, etc. to back the plan and promote mask wearing. Because when it’s safe for schools to re-open, it’s safer for everyone to re-open.

Currently, the burden of weighing health and safety against education and employment is falling on individual families, teachers, and staff. This is the opposite of safe or equitable decision-making. We demand leadership from our leaders, both in the school district and the city of Sioux Falls. Prioritize safe school openings now. Make the correct decision immediately to implement remote teaching so educators can begin planning today how to connect with students, make learning engaging, and create impactful lessons.  

"As educators, we do have a duty to facilitate learning. But this in no way implies we must put our lives on the line to do so, nor does it mean we should put others’ lives at risk." (Teachers: You Are Being Gaslit - Michele Merritt, Ph.D.)