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Rapid City School Board Votes Against Temporary Mask Mandate

Mask mandate protestors and counter-protestors gather outside of a Rapid City school board meeting.
SDPB / Arielle Zionts
Mask mandate protestors and counter-protestors gather outside of a Rapid City school board meeting.

The Rapid City Area School Board voted Tuesday against a two-week mask mandate. It also decided against forming a committee with doctors who would make further COVID-19 safety recommendations.

The measure was proposed in response to rising cases within the district and the Black Hills. It failed 5-2 after testimony and a letter from dozens of local medical professionals who said the policies could help improve overcrowding at the hospital.

Arielle Zionts
A graph compares recent COVID-19 cases at the school district to the same time last year, before vaccines were available.

Tensions ran high before and during the school board meeting at Rapid City High School.

Dozens chanted and sometimes yelled at each other during the demonstration before the vote.

"Freedom!" and "parents' choice!" the anti-mandate group chanted outside the front door to the historic high school.

"You're listening to the wrong people, free your kids, come on! Are they happy when they put on a mask? Do you see the sadness in their eyes?" a woman yelled into a megaphone.

"I'm not going to back down!” a man shouted. “This is America, you want to wear a mask, wear a mask! You don't, don't! It's a choice. Chose for you and if you feel so unsafe, go back home to where you came from."

"Mask our kids!" the pro-mandate group chanted. "People are dying and you don't care," one man yelled.

Joanna Smith came to the protest with her husband and baby. She says parents, not the school board, should control masking.

“So if it makes parents feel safe they should be able to make their kid wear a mask to school and if it makes parents feel like it’s hurting their child’s learning or in some way negatively affecting their child I think a parent should have that choice to send their child to school without a mask,” she said.

Arielle Zionts
Joanna Smith came to the demonstration with her husband Gary and their daughter Lilly.

Si Issler, a district parent and nurse at Monument Health, carried a sign reading "help us be able to help you."

"We are horribly overwhelmed and understaffed at the hospital. There are more than three floors devoted to COVID. And that doesn't happen with the normal flu, that doesn't happen with respiratory disease in general, this is something new that we are battling, and people are burning out," she said. “If people would mask up for a while to help slow the spread, this would help the health care workers help everyone.”

The staff shortages and influx of COVID patients impacts all patients, Issler said. Some patients are avoiding care while others face long waits or are transferred to different hospitals.

Arielle Zionts
Si Issler is a district parent and nurse at Monument Health

The group eventually went inside and filled the auditorium to standing room only. 70 people signed up for public comment and security removed several people who booed or shouted.

“If you’re going to heckle, I will suspend or recess this meeting. Let us conduct our business,” Board President Kate Thomas said as she hit a gavel.

One of the most fraught moments came when Rep. Phil Jensen (R-Rapid City) responded to a woman who said she supports COVID alerts and mask mandates since she has three relatives with cancer.

“I truly emphasize with you,” said Jensen, adding that he’s recently lost loved ones to cancer.

"But you know, I'm not responsible for your family's health,” he said as the crowd began to boo and cheer. “And I'm not responsible for your family's immune system. We are all responsible for ourselves," Jensen continued as the woman walked out of the auditorium.

"Love thy neighbor!" a man in the audience responded.

Rep. Phil Jensen

Thomas invited Trevor Anderson, a Rapid City doctor who specializes in physical medicine, rehabilitation and pain management.

Anderson said his extensive research has led him to oppose mask mandates for children. He says it’s not as beneficial as adult masking and kids have negative side effects.

Heather Sazama, a district parent and federal prosecutor, criticized the board for inviting Anderson. She specifically called out board member Jim Hansen, a police officer who knows how expert testimony works in court.

“I have to make sure that the expert that I want people to hear from is qualified to talk about that subject,” Sazama said. “When we have a homicide case, we don’t bring in a dermatologist to talk about manner of death. We bring in Dr. Habbe, a pathologist.”

Heather Sazama, district mom and federal prosecutor

The school board heard from other doctors who specialize in emergency medicine, intensive care, the immune system and pediatrics. They also received a letter from 58 medical professionals that cited recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics and Centers for Disease Control.

Board members Amy Policky and Clay Colombe introduced and voted for the resolution that failed 5-2. It called for the board to:

  • Create a two-week mask mandate for students, staff and visitors;
  • Improve communication, contact tracing and the definition of a “close contact;”
  • Create a committee that includes medical professionals who will create recommendation on additional measures to keep the district safe.

The board instead passed Thomas’ resolution that says social distancing is encouraged, but not required or prohibited. It also says parents need to consent each time their child is tested for COVID-19.
Thomas, Deb Baker, Breanna Funke, Gabe Doney and Thomas attended several campaign events together and were supported by the Pennington County Republican Party and the Family Heritage Alliance. Hansen, Policky and Colombe were incumbents not up for reelection.

The school board voted on other issues at the meeting:

  • The board reached a compromise on how to collect and report COVID-19 data. Parents won’t receive automatic email alerts anymore. Instead, they can opt-in to receive them. The alerts will tell parents about new cases at individual schools, but not include close-contact alerts. The online dashboard will continue. The dashboard will break down the total, recovered and new COVID data by school, but take away elementary grade-level data.
  • The board approved a new policy that says the media must wear credentials and can’t be given “special access” to board members. Thomas says someone once helped a journalist get closer to a board member without the board member’s knowledge and this is a safety issue. Policky said the credential issue might violate open meeting rules, which say public meetings must be open to everyone. Thomas says the board can research this issue before the next vote.
  • The board deleted five policies related to student board representatives, board governance, student academic results, and superintendent expectations and relations. Thomas said the student representatives are written into the wrong policy, and the rest contradict with other polices. She said the deleted policies need to be edited or re-written. Policky said the board should edit or create new policies before deleting the current ones.
  • The board made changes to how many times certain issues must be read and voted on before going into effect.
  • The board said policies related to “new and important direction for the school system” and policies that “would substantially alter a major program or mode of operation” no longer need to be reviewed by the policy committee.
Arielle Zionts, rural health care correspondent, is based in South Dakota. She primarily covers South Dakota and its neighboring states and tribal nations. Arielle previously worked at South Dakota Public Broadcasting, where she reported on business and economic development.