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South Dakota health officials weigh in on masks in schools

July 23, 2020 GMT

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota health officials on Thursday said that one of their top priorities is helping schools reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic, but that they will leave it up to school administrators to decide whether to require masks.

With most South Dakota schools planning to allow students into classrooms in the coming months, requiring teachers and students to wear masks has been an item of debate at school board meetings statewide. The South Dakota State Medical Association, the largest group of doctors in the state, has urged school administrators to require them.

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The Board of Regents announced this week it will require masks at public universities for at least the first 30 days of the fall semester. The Mitchell school district will also require masks on school property, but the Sioux Falls school district, the largest in the state, doesn’t have a requirement for face coverings in its current reopening plan.

Josh Clayton, the state epidemiologist, said the Department of Health is pointing to recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and those aren’t specific on calling for masks in schools. He encouraged a school-by-school approach that reacts to local conditions.

The CDC has said that there “is increasing evidence that cloth face coverings help prevent people who have COVID-19 from spreading the virus to others” and recommends people wear them in public.

Republican Gov. Kristi Noem has pushed for schools to return to in-person education, saying that when they closed in the spring, many students lost contact with their teachers.

Secretary of Health Kim Malsam-Rysdon said, “Kids thrive in the situation when they’re able to go to school and interact with their teachers.”

But opening schools has also caused concern they could become hubs of coronavirus infections. Surges in cases have caused schools in some states to postpone plans for in-person classes. Malsam-Rysdon said the Department of Health is preparing to conduct contact tracing in schools to try to prevent clusters of infections.

In South Dakota, the daily rate of reported infections has remained mostly constant over the last two weeks. Health officials reported 66 cases of the virus on Thursday.

Over the course of the pandemic, 8,143 cases have been reported statewide, but 88% of those have recovered. Health officials reported two deaths on Thursday, bringing the state’s tally of COVID-19 deaths to 121.

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The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

Meanwhile, the number of South Dakota residents who made new claims for unemployment saw a significant decline, according to the Department of Labor and Regulation. The agency reports that 698 people made new claims for unemployment benefits during the week ending July 18, which is a more than 40% decrease from the previous week.

A total of 16,594 people in the state were receiving unemployment benefits as of July 11. That represents 4% of all eligible employees in the state.