RAPID CITY, S.D. — Staring at quickly rising COVID-19 numbers, and angry parents, the Rapid City school board on Tuesday, Sept. 7, rejected a proposed two-week mask mandate, claiming a mandate smacked of governmental overreach.
"The hospitals are being taxed. Our schools are being taxed," said Amy Policky, a member of the Rapid City Area Schools Board of Education, arguing for a resolution mandating masks before a large audience at an auditorium in Rapid City High School. "Parents are not keeping their kids home when they're sick."
But board president Kate Thomas, who has frequently fought a mandate, argued Policky's remarks were not germane to the resolution.
"We can't and don't have the power to even talk about what parents are doing with their kids," said Thomas.
The opposition to a mandate in Rapid City, like many schools across America, has been motivated by a range of opinions on personal liberty to misinformation about dangers caused by masks to children. In August, the seven-member school board rejected a mask mandate for the return to school weeks ago.
But that was before the spike in COVID-19 cases in western South Dakota, precipitated by the spread of the COVID-19 delta variant in the aftermath of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. As of Tuesday, Sept. 7, 560 students (and another 47 staff) across the school district are quarantined or in isolation from exposure to the virus.
On Tuesday evening, proponents of health measures held signs and traded remarks with mask opponents on the steps of a high school. One mask opponent, captured in a reporter's video, used a bullhorn to yell, "Free your kids. Are they happy when they put on a mask? Do you see the sadness in their eyes?"
The rambunctious exchanges carried into the meeting, where 70 people signed up for public testimony, which was frequently interrupted by taunts and jeering.
One mother, in a mask, stood to say she used emails from Superintendent Lori Simon's office to help gauge whether to send her 12th-grade son to school each day, given many in her family have cancer.
"COVID will kill them if they get it," she said.
But Rapid City-area lawmaker Rep. Phil Jensen, a Republican firebrand who has previously brought contentious measures to the Statehouse, took to the microphone to rebut her comment, saying that while he "truly empathize[s]" with her, "I'm not responsible for your family's health."
While some applauded the remark, others booed, with one audience member pointedly walking out.
Ultimately, the calls to action met a wall of opposition in the board, with only two members — Policky and Clay Colombe — heeding health care experts' advise to require masking in children, the large percentage of whom are unvaccinated. The rest opposed the motion.
The board did on a 6-0 vote ultimately adopt updating the district's dashboard with building-specific COVID numbers — a change sought by mask mandate proponents.