Schools still closed

Ron Burtz
“This isn’t a break,” said Custer School District superintendent Mark Naugle. “This is alternative instruction until we get back in session.” 
Naugle made those comments at a special school board meeting held last Tuesday to decide how to handle the statewide multi-week shutdown of schools in response to the COVID-19 virus. 
School board president Heather Grace echoed Naugle’s statement, saying, “We need to emphasize school is in session. This is just an alternative way of learning for a period of time.” 
On Friday, March 13, Gov. Kristi Noem requested schools across the state be shut down the following week in an effort to limit the spread of the virus. Then the following Tuesday the governor ordered schools closed for a second week, meaning students are expected to work on their schoolwork at home until at least March 30. On Tuesday that was extended, as Noem recommended schools be closed until May 1. That also means spring sports practices and competitions are cancelled through May 3, the South Dakota High School Activities Association (SDHSAA) announced. In coming days  the SDHSAA will meet to decide on the 2020 spring sports season, as well as the suspended/postponed events of state basketball, visual arts, region music and all-state band. 
In an effort to make home learning a reality, Custer teachers had an in-service day on Tuesday to make contingency plans and assemble homework and other materials for students to pick up the following morning. 
All three school buildings in the district were open from 7 a.m. until noon Wednesday for parents and students to pick up the materials, clean out their lockers and take home laptops, textbooks and band instruments. Tables were set up in the high school commons and grade school gym and each teacher had packets of assignments for the students to take home.
Administrators praised the district’s teachers who they said had worked overtime in preceding days to prepare students to continue to work at home for the next two weeks. 
Hermosa principal Lori Enright said, “I’m exhausted, but very happy with the preparedness of my teachers.”
“The expectation of the teachers is that the assigned work will be completed,” said jr./sr. high principal Orion Thompson. “Teachers will depend on parents to make sure it gets done.” 
Custer Elementary principal Barb Paulson said she was also working to get computers in the hands of students who don’t have them at home so they can work online. 
Special Education director Eve Trandem said her teachers will make use of an online meeting app called Zoom to interact with students during the shutdown. 
She said, “I have no doubt our teachers are going to be busy” — a theme picked up by other administrators and teachers as well. 
“I have no doubt that every staff member will be working during this time,” said jr./sr. high teacher Chuck Arseneault, who also serves as president of the Custer Education Association. 
Arseneault said he already had students email him with questions about schoolwork. 
As salaried employees, teachers will continue to be paid during the shutdown even while working from home. However, Naugle raised the issue of hourly support staff such as paraprofessionals, secretaries and custodians who face a significant loss of pay.
He said the board could allow hourly employees who are not working to use their sick leave, vacation time or personal leave to bridge the gap or develop an emergency pay plan for all hourly employees. 
Naugle said, as the lowest paid people in the school system, those workers could suffer a major economic impact which would spill over into the local economy. 
He said the custodians would be busy the first week or so doing deep cleaning in the school buildings, but after that, they will be in the same situation as the other non-salaried employees. 
Noting that the money to pay support staff has already been budgeted, Naugle recommended the board approve an emergency payment plan to pay those employees during the time off.
In response, board member Jeff Prior offered a motion to pay all staff during the shutdown and added an amendment which included payment of benefits, as well. 
Following the unanimous positive vote on the motion, board member Jared Carson noted, that as a major employer, the district’s actions affect the economy of the whole community. 
The board also heard the administration’s plan for continuing to feed students during the shutdown. 
Starting last Wednesday, grab-and-go sack breakfasts and lunches were available to all students in junior kindergarten through high school. Starting on Monday, the school began distributing the meals on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays with multiple meals given out at one time. The Friday pickups will include additional meals for the weekend. 
In addition, the school Suburban is delivering meals to several locations, including the Armory and Aspen View Apartments parking lots in Custer, in Pringle and Four Mile Trailer Park west of Custer. 
Board member Travis Hartshorn reported that 19 families had picked up lunches in Hermosa Tuesday and school officials said 230 lunches were distributed last Wednesday. The schedule for deliveries can be found at the school district website. 
Naugle said once the students’ assignments and other materials were distributed on Wednesday, the custodial staff would begin the process of deep cleaning and disinfecting the buildings. 
Head of buildings and grounds for the district, Joe Uhrich, said he had enough cleaning supplies to last the next three weeks and promised, “We’ll get it as clean as we’re going to get it.”
He reported that custodians would do the same with the school vehicles and the school bus company has plans beyond the shutdown to wipe down each bus after morning and afternoon routes. 
The board discussed the suspension of extracurricular activities and Naugle noted that the S.D. High School Activities Associa-tion has suspended all activities through April 5. Naugle said the first track meet of the season is scheduled for April 9 in Spearfish.
Naugle said following the meeting that with the steps the district is taking in trying to keep students working on their assignments at home, he didn’t expect to have to make up any school days or extend the school year. He said the district already has more hours of instruction than is required by state statute. 
The school board made a special effort to complement the staff on their efforts to keep learning going during the shutdown and board member Bob Morgan even found a silver lining in the crisis.
“This could be a learning opportunity,” said Morgan. “We’ve talked virtual classroom ... a framework is being laid right now. Let’s capitalize on it.” 
Morgan urged the staff to keep notes on their process of setting up online learning with an eye toward using those notes to develop future distance learning programs. 
Given the gravity of the situation, the mood of the meeting was upbeat and board members sought to encourage the staff in their efforts. 
“This is unknown territory, but I think we’re going to be OK,” concluded Naugle.     

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