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Work to educate amid COVID-19 continues for South Dakota education officials

Secretary of Education Sanderson says state leadership now on "ultra marathon" to address disease.

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South Dakota Secretary of Education Tiffany Sanderson gives a presentation while speaking in the Tiger Café inside the McGovern Library on Dakota Wesleyan University's campus on Tuesday. Sanderson's presentation was sponsored by the Mitchell Lion's Club. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Matt Gade

The past two years have been an incredible challenge for teachers trying to educate their students as the deadly COVID-19 pandemic disrupted school districts, forced students and teachers from the classroom into a virtual learning space and spurred countless debates about masks and vaccines.

What started out as an instinctive reaction by state education leaders to the arrival of the disease has now turned into an extended game plan to keep South Dakota students from falling behind due to the challenges of teaching in the middle of a pandemic.

Tiffany Sanderson, secretary of education for South Dakota, was on hand Tuesday to address the Mitchell Lions Club, as well as members of other local service organizations and members of the public, and to take part in a question and answer session. The event took place at the McGovern Library on the campus of Dakota Wesleyan University.

“Nineteen months ago we thought we were in a 100-meter dash to address COVID-19,” Sanderson told the dozens of members of the public who attended the presentation. “Nineteen months later we’re in an ultra marathon figuring out how to prioritize our students in the face of the COVID-19 impact on our schools.”

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The fight against the disease, which has killed 4.9 million people around the world, continues to be a top priority for the department and the 149 school districts it oversees in South Dakota. The situation is nothing any educator in the state signed on for, Sanderson said, but school teachers and administrators have taken the current conditions, learned from them and continued to adjust in the face of an uncertain time.

That’s a lesson students in schools across the state are able to take to heart, she said.

“It has been challenging with many moments of stress, but I’m so grateful for our educators who have taught students resilience. That’s one of the great things of our time, our youth have been able to see examples of adults they trust in their lives being able to adjust to challenging times,” Sanderson said.

Sanderson said it is difficult to find a one-size-fits-all solution to any educational issue in the state. Some of that is due to the differences in rural and metro-area schools, where student and community populations vary greatly in size. Sanderson noted that the smallest school district in the state has only 12 students, while the largest has approximately 24,000.

Finding common ground on policy between schools that range in that size can be difficult sometimes.

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People listen along as South Dakota Secretary of Education Tiffany Sanderson speaks in the Tiger Café inside the McGovern Library on Dakota Wesleyan University's campus on Tuesday. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Matt Gade

“Making policy in that space can sometimes be challenging,” Sanderson said.

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Challenges facing school districts today include maintaining live, in-person classroom learning and addressing a need for more professional development and retention. So far, efforts to avoid online learning have been mostly successful, she said.

“We know that almost 90% of schools had students in person last year. I have visited with (leaders in) other states on a weekly and monthly basis, and that number is not a common number,” Sanderson said. “South Dakota prioritized in-person learning last year and mitigated the disease at the same time.”

Drawing teachers to and keeping them in South Dakota will also be a priority in the future, she said.

“Finding teachers, subs and school leaders (can be difficult). We have a great opportunity to build a teacher pipeline and invite all kinds of people into the profession,” she said. “We have about 10,000 teachers in South Dakota. I’d like to keep those 10,000 teachers, so our efforts will go toward retention efforts, as well.”

Following her presentation, Sanderson took a few questions from the audience.

One question asked what the state was doing in terms of providing pre-kindergarten classes at schools across the state. Sanderson said there was work to do before such a program could be fully implemented.

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South Dakota Secretary of Education Tiffany Sanderson talks school districts across the state during a presentation in the Tiger Café inside the McGovern Library on Dakota Wesleyan University's campus on Tuesday. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Matt Gade

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“In our department of education, we have the Birth to Three program and we are also liaisons with the federal Head Start programs. Those folks are currently working with the department of social services who license preschool facilities to bring our services together and to make sure the expectations for educators and providers is in sync and streamlined as a foundational piece to make sure we have quality expectations,” Sanderson said. “Before we can move to any higher levels to offering pre-kindergarten in South Dakota, that stuff has to happen”

Another question asked how a lack of parent interest and participation in their children's education could be overcome. Sanderson suggested leading by example on that issue.

“It’s going to take all the people in this room and more to make that happen. There are a whole bunch of really small solutions, everything from sharing your time and energy in school buildings to serving as a substitute or volunteering for mentoring programs,” Sanderson said. “It’s on all of us to engage however we can to share our time and energy with our school system.”

Sanderson was also asked about recent debate surrounding proposed social studies standards in South Dakota. Recent changes to proposed social studies standards saw the removal of around a dozen references to the Oceti Sakowin, a term that refers collectively to the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people, a move that has been criticized by some. Gov. Kristi Noem in September announced that she had instructed the South Dakota Department of Education to delay changes to the standards up to one year to allow for more public input.

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South Dakota Secretary of Education Tiffany Sanderson talks about federal money the state received as part of COVID relief funds while speaking in the Tiger Café inside the McGovern Library on Dakota Wesleyan University's campus on Tuesday. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Matt Gade

Sanderson said offering robust studies in Native American history and culture is a priority.

“No way (were the changes meant) to take away those understandings or the history of the Native American people,” Sanderson said.

There will continue to be challenges, both those related to COVID-19 and others, Sanderson said. But she said she was optimistic going forward thanks to the hard work of teachers and administrators at school districts across the state. Their work over the last two years has been exemplary in the face of new obstacles, and while there is more to accomplish, South Dakota is working to provide the highest level of educational experience that it can for students.

“I’ll be the first to say we have challenges moving forward, but we are in a really good position compared to many other states,” Sanderson said. “I applaud our educators on what they took on in the last few years.”

Related Topics: EDUCATION
Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at ekaufman@mitchellrepublic.com.
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