- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 28, 2020

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem on Tuesday said she will push for schools to stay open this fall, but disparaged any requirements for children to wear masks in classrooms.

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. But Noem appears selective in the research she is using for her decisions: She 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.

“We cannot sacrifice the educational, physical, emotional and social well-being of our kids. The risks of COVID are too minimal for us to make sure that they’re all going to stay home,” Noem said at a press conference held in a classroom at John Harris Elementary in Sioux Falls

Noem emphasized research that says children are less likely to spread the virus, adding that wearing masks is impractical and may even lead to infections spreading if children touch their faces more frequently.

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 reopenings 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.

Meanwhile, Jessica Peterson, the 5th-grade teacher who hosted Noem’s press conference in her classroom, had her husband build plastic barriers at the tables where students will be sitting in a few weeks. She said she’s just trying to stop the pandemic from entering her classroom.

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