South Dakota’s four technical colleges will require masks on campus this fall, a top state official said Friday.

Face coverings will be required in all campus public spaces starting in August, South Dakota Board of Technical Education Executive Director Nick Wendell said. The policy will be in effect at Mitchell Technical College, Lake Area Technical College in Watertown, Southeast Technical College in Sioux Falls and Western Dakota Technical College in Rapid City.

Wendell said it was the most realistic safety precaution that can be taken to allow classes to take place in a traditional sense and get students into hands-on training and curriculum on campus.

The decision was made in consultation with local campus leaders and with a desire to get students back to technical college campuses, especially considering much of the curriculum emphasizes hands-on learning and skilled workforce training.

“When we started meeting about this in May to plan for the fall semester, we really had to think about how students move about their spaces,” Wendell told the Mitchell Republic. “In some of the lab and classroom areas, there is no way to appropriately have social distancing. We’re following CDC guidelines when social distancing can’t be maintained and can’t have six feet between people. To do what we want our students to do, there’s really no other way to approach the fall.”

Nick Wendell, who grew up in Gregory, is the Executive Director of the South Dakota Board of Technical Education. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Nick Wendell, who grew up in Gregory, is the Executive Director of the South Dakota Board of Technical Education. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Wendell acknowledged that the mask issue has become “divisive” in South Dakota but said making face coverings required is in the best interest of the campus faculty, staff and the communities the schools are located.

“The science is pretty conclusive at this stage that this can slow the spread of COVID-19,” he said. “If we were going to successfully invite students back to our campuses, we were going to have to make masks a requirement. That’s the way we can protect our workforce.”

Wendell said the decision is in alignment with some of the local governing bodies involved in technical education in the state. The Mitchell Board of Education is the only local governing body of the four communities — Mitchell, Sioux Falls, Rapid City, Watertown — that have technical colleges to require all students and staff to wear masks while on campus.

Wendell expects changes regarding limiting the number of days and time periods students are in a particular classroom or lab. He said other COVID-19 precautions that have become standard will also be taken, with sanitizing stations around campuses, the use of temperature checks and frequent cleaning of items commonly touched. He said there will have to be creative solutions made for specific situations, such as operating welding equipment.

As of earlier this month, the state’s public four-year universities were not planning to require masks this fall, instead making them a strong recommendation. The South Dakota Board of Regents is meeting again on Wednesday and will further discuss plans for the upcoming semester.

Augustana University announced July 9 it is requiring masks in all indoor public spaces on its Sioux Falls campus, making it the first post-secondary institution in the state to require masks.