YANKTON, S.D. — The complaints came in from school boards across South Dakota.
The masks stomp on freedoms.
They spike anxiety in children.
At the Yankton school board meeting on Aug. 9, before the board voted to go ahead with the school year without required facial cloths, mothers said crusts of food and mucus filled younger children's masks and couldn't possibly be effective.
"The reality of what a mask looks like at the end of a day for a small child is sobering," lamented Amanda Johnson, a resident of Yankton County.
Entering the third school year to be upended by the global pandemic, mask fatigue — especially in South Dakota, where the state's leading official is infamously apathetic about facial covering as a ward against COVID-19 — has taken root, with a number of school across the state whose boards have, at least in August, abandoned mandates that many carried throughout much of last year.
But the fierce back-to-school opposition about this health precaution has collided this week with the delta variant rocketing up to hundreds of new cases a day in the state, as the number of infected persons in South Dakota reaches numbers not seen since last winter.
Now, many parents and teachers are wondering if mask come back, even if it means some peanut butter — or even snot — smudged on a child's faces by day's end.
"Quite honestly, that's kind of the point," Dr. Mike Smith, a professor of pediatrics at Duke University, said in an interview Wednesday, Aug. 2. "Your kid's mucus stays in their mask and not on other children."
In June, doctors at Duke published a report from a survey of schools in North Carolina with similar social distancing protocols showing that the "secondary attack" rate of the virus is low when masking is in place.
But the politics of the mask are also well hewn.
So far no school in the state has taken the drastic measures seen in eight states, including Texas and Florida, to outright ban masks in schools, according to the South Dakota Education Association.
But there have been pitched battles.
Earlier this week in Rapid City, the school board — newly emboldened by political conservatives elected just months ago —passed a series of protocols erasing administration-written rules around masking, on-campus testing and even contact tracing.
On masks, the board changed "recommended" to "voluntary."
"We are not a testing facility," school board president Kate Thomas announced at the meeting on Monday, Aug. 23. "The education system is not where you go to find out about your health."
When an audience member shouted out, "They're your own staff. Why aren't you listening to them?" Thomas responded, "Please behave. Have some couth."
So far, health care facilities are avoiding confronting publicly elected officials on school board policies. This week, a spokesman for Monument Health in Rapid City declined an interview request saying doctors were "interview weary."
But a group of South Dakota doctors affiliated with the American Academy of Pediatricians wrote a letter to every school board in the state noting what helped keep schools open last year was the "universal use of masks."
The spike in COVID-19, particularly in the western half of the state, emerges only weeks after the arrival of hundreds of thousands of out-of-state motorcycle riders via the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
In Sturgis proper, Superintendent of Meade School District Don Kirkegaard told a meeting on Aug. 16 that last year's protocols — which included opening the school year with a mask mandate — helped keep in-school transmission of the virus very low, with most of the 280 cases coming from "under the roof" of home.
This year they open the year with masks optional — at least, for now.
"If we have to make adjustments, either at the September board meeting, or if it goes from bad to worse in the next two weeks and I have to call a special board meeting, we're going to do that," Kirkegaard said.
By Thursday, Aug. 26, there were nearly 380 active cases in Meade County, or more than 1 out of every 100 residents.