South Dakota got a sense last Friday, March 13 of just how seriously one should take the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the course of just few moments during an 11:45 a.m. press conference that morning, Gov. Kristi Noem declared a state of emergency, postponed the remainder of the Class B girls state basketball tournament and the AA and A combined and B boys tournaments scheduled for this weekend, and asked for public and private schools statewide to close the week of March 15.

Gov. Noem had more news for everyone statewide during an afternoon press conference Tuesday, March 17.

Schools will remain closed yet another week – the week of March 22.

The governor’s decision compelled the scheduling of a Wednesday (March 18) morning meeting by the Vermillion School District’s Administration Team to discuss how to carry out plans to continue educating young people in the district outside of the school buildings.

“We had an admin (administrative) meeting following the governor’s press conference this afternoon,” Superintendent Damon Alvey told the Plain Talk Tuesday, “and we are coming back in tomorrow morning (Wednesday) to develop an e-learning and flex-learning plan for our students who will not be attending school next week.”

The administration team is made up of the district’s principals, business manager, curriculum director, special education director and technology director.

School staff will return to their school buildings Thursday and Friday, March 19 and March 20, he said. “We’ll create e-learning, electronic learning opportunities for kids as well as packets of grade-level appropriate information that we will ask families to use to help their kids during this time to keep their skills up.”

The packets, Alvey said, will include choices in math, language, social studies and science “that are basically take-home activities that mom and dad and students can work on together. It won’t replace or be the same thing that a teacher would deliver, of course, but it will be meant to sharpen their skills and keep them thinking about school during the next week off and keeping their mind on grade-level appropriate activities.”

Part of Wednesday morning’s discussion by the administration team focused on the best ways to distribute the packets of information to families.

“That’s the magic question. That’s what we’re going to meet tomorrow morning on,” the superintendent said Tuesday afternoon. “The high school level will probably be all electronic, because they all have a one-to-one laptop that the school provides. That format for them will be pretty seamless going through their email systems.”

Students in grades kindergarten through eighth will most likely have to depend on packet of information that local educators create and duplicate by photocopy.

“We will probably have them available at the school and ask folks to come and get them, or ask volunteers to deliver them,” Alvey said. “We talked about trying to set up a kiosk at Walmart and Hy-Vee because people will be going to those two places during this time off ... that’s asking a lot so I don’t know if that’s going to happen. It’s something we’re going to try to do. We don’t have all of the details but that something we’ll be working at tomorrow (Wednesday).

“The main thing is we want to provide some resources and common sense activities that moms and dads can try at home,” he said. “Homes that have internet access – we’re going to give them plenty of places to go there because there are a lot of free things out there that people can see. Those that don’t have internet access shouldn’t be penalized so we want them to come and get the workbook packets so they can talk about some of these topics at home and use some of our ideas and continue their kids’ discussions, even if it’s not on the internet.”

Gov. Noem’s initial call for schools to cancel classes for a week on March 13 followed a somewhat slow climb in COVID-19 cases statewide. On March 10, there was death reported – a man in his 60s from Pennington County who also had underlying health conditions. There were five other cases reported that day: A man in his 40s from Beadle County; A man in his 50s from Charles Mix County; A woman in her 30s from Davison County; A resident of Mitchell; and a man in his 40s from Minnehaha County.

Three more positive COVID-19 individuals were reported on March 11: A man in his 40s from Minnehaha County; a man in his 50s from Minnehaha; and a man in his 60s from Bon Homme County.

On March 13 and March 16, respectively, it was revealed that a man in his 30s from McCook County and a man in 20s from Minnehaha County tested positive.

On Tuesday, March 17, the total number of COVID-19 cases in South Dakota grew to 11, when a Minnehaha County woman in her 50s tested positive.

The Vermillion School District and St. Agnes School are not holding classes, school-related activities or allowing use of school facilities this week.

“Schools will stay out next week as well,” Noem said at the Tuesday press conference. “We will not be holding school next week in the state of South Dakota to give ourselves a little bit more time to develop more testing and lab capability.”

State officials are working with health care providers in monitoring the development of the coronavirus across the state, Noem said. The process includes caring for individuals who want to be tested or if they test positive, she added.

South Dakota has recorded one new case in the last 24 hours, a female age 50-59 in Minnehaha County (Sioux Falls area). The new case brings the state’s total to 11.

“All individuals who have tested positive are at home, resting and healing up,” the governor said. “That’s good news for the state. We’re in a good spot today, but we’ll continue to be diligent.”

Citing COVID-19 concerns, South Dakota’s six public universities will temporarily move to online classes March 23 with on-campus, in-person classes scheduled to resume April 6. (See related story).

The South Dakota Board of Regents announced the decision Monday afternoon. Last week, the board extended spring break at the six schools through Friday, March 20.

The six affected institutions include the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, South Dakota State University in Brookings, Dakota State University in Madison, Northern State University in Aberdeen, the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City and Black Hills State University in Spearfish.

During Tuesday’s press conference, Noem was joined by officials from Sanford Health and the Avera Health systems, along South Dakota Department of Health Secretary Kim Malsam-Rysdon.

The press conference covered a number of subjects. The participants fielded questions on setting up resources for testing and results, along with the importance of social distancing.

Noem spoke by conference call with South Dakota legislators Monday night and met with her cabinet members Tuesday morning. She informed the state lawmakers that the remaining “Veto Day” of the session may include a suspension of the rules to address issues related to COVID-19.

South Dakota has not recorded a community spread of the virus, which refers to an unknown spread or source, Noem said. In that regard, the state stands in a better situation than some of its neighbors, she said.

“We recognize this virus will ripple its effect across the state, and we want to be prepared and to make sure our resources are in the right place, whatever comes in our direction,” the governor said.

“Thanks to all the medical experts who are helping the state make good decisions so we are prepared in the coming weeks for whatever direction the spread may go.”

Alvey said that school administrators across the state began calling each other asking for ideas and advice when it appeared that high school basketball tournaments would be postponed and that classes may be cancelled this week.

“Having professionals around just to bounce ideas off is really helpful,” he said. “But more importantly, we called our local school board together and had a special meeting last Thursday where basically the topics were what do we know so far about COVID-19 and what are our plans moving forward to keep our kids and our staff safe.”

The board agreed last week to take matters one day at a time and not rush into making any changes, preferring, instead, to wait until more information was available, the superintendent said.

The district’s administration team, which normally meets once a month, has been meeting daily since the governor’s request last Friday for state school’s to not hold classes.

Alvey informed patrons of the Vermillion School District via a letter posted on the district’s web page shortly after the governor’s March 13 request to close schools that the district’s buildings would be undergoing a deep cleaning this week.

“In an effort to be proactive the Vermillion School District will suspend all non-essential activities until further notice. These non-essential activities include but are not limited to concerts, in and out of town activities, field trips, professional development opportunities, etc,” he stated. “We will continue to take recommendations from the State Dept. of Health and the CDC and will review these restrictions and act accordingly as this event continues to unfold.”

Alvey noted in his letter that the school district will also suspend all facility use by non-school organizations such as the PTA, the Parks and Recreations programs and travel sports teams until further notice.

He added that state officials are working on plans and informing schools daily with updates. “Considerations of online learning opportunities, State testing mandates, make up days, and such topics are being discussed but it is too early to report any solid plans at this time,” Alvey stated.

“While we are sorry to take these actions, we want to share that the health of all our community members is the most important factor currently. We will work through this unprecedented event together as a school and community by understanding the facts,” he wrote.

He encourages people to read information provided by the health experts on the Covid-19 outbreak and practice the advised hygiene practices.

“The Vermillion School District will continue to monitor this event and keep staff, students and families informed on the school website and through School Messenger,” Alvey stated.

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