South Dakota schools 'managing' as state sees highest COVID-19 count to date

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With surges of COVID-19 cases following discovery and spread of the Omicron variant, staff shortages have been seen everywhere from bars and restaurants to pet daycares and schools.

Some South Dakota schools have plans in place in case teachers are out sick, while others have sent reminders to families this week that they should keep taking COVID-19 precautions.

There are more than 3,000 active COVID-19 cases among those ages 0-19, according to the South Dakota Department of Health. And that’s not counting teachers and staff in schools.

More: South Dakota reports its highest active COVID case count since pandemic started

South Dakota also surpassed another daily record number for active cases Thursday, with 2,584 new case infections bringing the overall active case count to 24,796, according to state data.

It's the third day in a row the state has surpassed its previous record as the omicron variant continues to spread throughout the nation.

Wednesday, the state reported 22,743 active cases. The previous high was 20,475 Tuesday and 19,240, which was reported by the department on Nov. 18, 2020.

Both Sioux Falls and Dell Rapids schools have sent out reminders to families updating them of new CDC guidance for isolation and quarantine, which specify that those positive for COVID-19 need only isolate for five days and wear a mask through day 10 of their illness.

Those continuing to have a fever or other symptoms after five days of isolation should wait to end isolation until they're fever-free for 24 hours without the use of medication, and their other symptoms have improved.

In Tea Area schools, Superintendent Jennifer Lowery emailed the district last weekend asking people to please consider wearing masks if they’re able and willing. Masks are recommended there but not required, and required on buses.

Lowery warned the district is on the edge of moving to “yellow status,” which means masking would be required.

Staffing is also becoming a problem there as schools see an “accelerated rise” in cases of COVID-19, influenza and “the stomach bug,” Lowery wrote to families.

'We're managing'

In Lennox School District, Superintendent Chad Conaway said cases are “up” in the district, “but we’re managing.” Both vaccinated and unvaccinated staff have contracted COVID-19 there, he said.

“I believe if we stay faithful to our plan, we’ll make our way through this round of the new Omicron variant,” Conaway said early in the week.

Masks remain optional in Lennox schools, but the district’s plan includes requiring masks for close contacts who have a positive case within their household, and requiring masks for all people within a school building if the building’s cases hit 5% of the building’s population.

More: Omicron variant straining hospital capacity, COVID testing capabilities in Sioux Falls

'No two years are the same'

In Sioux Falls, schools have plans in place to make sure classrooms are covered if staff are out sick, spokeswoman DeeAnn Konrad said. If an opening isn’t filled by a substitute teacher, plans may involve the use of existing staff from that school or the district.

“Every year, school districts deal with periods of increased illness and no two years are the same due to many viruses that may travel through communities,” Konrad said. “We'll continue to support our schools to keep the regular school day routines on track.”

The district’s Continue to Learn plan, designed to help the district navigate the ongoing pandemic, encourages the use of masks for those who aren’t vaccinated, including pre-kindergarten students for whom the vaccine isn’t yet available.

Slight uptick in cases

In the Tri-Valley School District, Superintendent Mike Lodmel said only one staff member is out sick that he’s aware of.

“Obviously, with COVID-19, everything is fluid and adjustments have to be made in a short time,” Lodmel said. “I will say that although we are seeing a slight uptick in COVID-19 cases after the break, it is still quite small in comparison to what we witnessed last school year.”

Other districts did not respond to requests for comment from the Argus Leader, such as how they’ll handle staffing going forward. Those include Brandon Valley, where masks remain optional; West Central, where people may choose to wear a mask; Baltic, where masks are voluntary; and Dell Rapids, where masks are recommended for unvaccinated people.

Officials in Harrisburg School District, the state's fastest growing district, did not respond to requests for comment, but closed campuses Friday because of "staffing issues, a shortage of substitutes, and approaching adverse winter weather," a statement sent to families Thursday night read.

"The district has been experiencing a shortage of substitutes," the statement read. "We would encourage anyone interested in subbing to contact the district office."

The statement did not directly state COVID-19 cases rising as an issue, but masks remain strongly recommended there. And there were more than 100 active COVID-19 cases across the schools as of Thursday evening, according to the COVID-19 tracker on the district’s website.

This article originally appeared on Sioux Falls Argus Leader: South Dakota schools 'managing' as COVID cases spike with omicron

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