Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Back to School? Parents Weigh Options and Risks

Kealey Bultena

School administrators and parents are facing complicated decisions this fall. Governor Kristi Noem encourages parents to send children back to school, but how to limit transmission of COVID-19 is up to each district. 

Over the past month, superintendents have begun releasing their back-to-school plans. They’re as prepared as possible, and say most parents will send their children back to the classroom. But not everyone is willing to take that risk.


Holly Richard and her husband live in rural Beresford with their two young daughters. Richard says last spring was a disaster for their eight year old. 


““There were lots of tears and our child is usually joyful," says Richard. "And so it was like crying every day over school stuff! So we were like, this isn’t the kind of learning environment we wanna have for her.”

Richard says they’ve been sheltering in place for the past five months, and they plan to stick to that until there is a COVID-19 vaccine. They want to limit their social contact, and that’s difficult if their oldest goes back to school. 



“They’re not minimizing the classroom sizes, so she would still be in a classroom with 17 other kids all day long. That didn’t seem like, for our family, a good decision," she says.

The Beresford district offers online options. Richard says they didn’t work well last spring, and she’s hesitant to increase her daughter’s screen time. So she had one option left: homeschool. 


“I just don’t see any other way that we would be comfortable,” she says.

Some parents wanted more back-to-school details before making their decision. District officials have spent much of the summer on those plans. 

In June, Shane Nordyke, a professor at the University of South Dakota and mother of two Vermillion students, started a private Facebook group. She brought together more than 150 parents with two goals.


“One was figuring out how can we help the district to do more or find ways to keep kids and teachers safe both in face-to-face and remote options," explains Nordyke. "But also, if they don’t go in that direction—and at the time it certainly looked like they weren’t going to go in that direction—what are our other options?”


One option is South Dakota's Virtual School program. Districts like Wessington Springs can offer instruction with online curriculum. In 2013--its first year--there were four students, and it's grown since then. Kids can work at their own pace and schedule time with a licensed teacher when they need extra help.


Wessington Springs Principal Jason Kolousek says he's heard from families from all over the state who want to apply for the fall semester.



“I would say it’s gonna at least double," says Kolousek. "I would estimate anywhere between 80 and 100 in that cyber school.”


Kolousek says families have different reasons for their interest in the virtual program.


“Quite a few of them are just the unknown. They don’t want to go back to school and have to go remote like in the spring. This is known, they know this is what they’re going to do for the whole year.”

Some parents are frustrated with uncertainty. That includes whether schools will require masks. The Vermillion School Board voted to require them earlier this month, just weeks before classes were scheduled to begin. The district also developed a remote learning option using its own teachers. Depending on their age, students can watch classes live or use a combination of recorded videos and worksheets. 

The delay in decision-making left parents frustrated, and it’s led to tension between administrators and Shane Nordyke’s Facebook group. She says a district principal told her it was counterproductive to ask for answers while while some are belittling the district online. 


“And I was quick to email back and say that is not why the group was created or the purpose of it, and it’s also not what’s primarily taking place in the group," says Nordyke. "A lot of what’s taking place is people sharing resources, sharing back to school plans from other districts, sharing resources about online academies and things that are available.”

She says adds both her children are using the district’s online option, and adds many parents are happy with the mask requirement. Some are using the group to connect with other families to create something called learning pods.  


“So for example, there’s a couple of other fourth grade parents I’m in contact with where we plan to get our kids together for one or two hours a week, you know, with their masks on, socially distanced, outside, but having some game time or some science experiments or just some time to see other kids their age, since they’re missing out on that socialization component," Nordyke explains.

And for many families, that need for socialization may be part of the reasoning for sending their children back to the classroom. In Vermillion, it’s estimated more than 11-hundred of the district’s 12-hundred students will return to school. Vermillion Superintendent Damon Alvey is confident in the district’s plan to bring students back face-to-face. He says no one will know how effective it is until it’s put into practice. 


“At the end I think people were happy with the results of the plan, although some of the people would’ve liked to see it go further in some aspects than it did, and those families just have to make decisions for what’s best for their situation.”


Alvey says about 120 children are signed up for the district’s online option. He says a successful school year starts with getting kids back in-person and making up for lost time. 

“And secondly, if we can get people back into buildings safely and execute our plan to keep them safe as long as possible, keep the virus out of our k-12 setting, that would be great.”

Alvey says the district is prepared to shift back to all-online education immediately in the event of a COVID outbreak. In an email, he says there’s no specific number of cases that would prompt a building to close. Alvey says the state Department of Health has a formula to guide that decision. 

A spokesperson for the Department of Health recommends that school administrators analyze outbreak trends to make their decision. The final decision is up to the district.


So even with a back-to-school plan in place, families face uncertainty. In Beresford, Holly Richard is trying to reduce uncertainty as much as possible, and her family is making a decision not every family can.


“Meaning, I will not work this year so I can take care of our children,” she says.

School administrators across the state acknowledge that even with masks and other precautions, there is a risk of COVID-19 exposure as kids return to the classroom. It’s a risk the Richard’s Family is not willing to take.