The Lack of Covid Mitigation Protocols in South Dakota is a Disability Rights Issue

A simple piece of cloth has become a huge source of controversy, and not just in South Dakota.

It’s just a piece a cloth. You put it on your face to cover your mouth and nose, and it acts as a barrier to the rest of the world.

But that simple piece of cloth has become a huge source of controversy.

While many people have been following public health recommendations and wear masks in public to limit the spread of Covid-19, others passionately fight against it, saying masks impede their individual freedoms.

For some of the most vulnerable people in our community, however, it’s the masks themselves that represent freedom.

In the United States alone, more than 39 million people have been infected with Covid-19 and more than 600,000 people have died. Covid cases among children are surging across the county as students return to school. In fact, in a two-week period in August, the number of new coronavirus cases in children jumped from 121,000 to nearly 204,000.

Closer to home, it’s the same story as active cases in Pennington County continue to rise. The number of positive Covid-19 cases is actually higher now than it was at the same time last year. And little is being done to stop the spread – particularly in our schools.

The Rapid City Board of Education has implemented fewer recommended mitigating measures this year than it did last year. No masking. No testing. No contact tracing or social distancing. Nothing to slow or prevent the spread of COVID-10 for students, staff or visitors at schools. Even after presented with details on the rising numbers of Covid cases within the school district, the board recently voted no to impose a temporary two-week mask requirement.

Not wearing a mask places all students, teachers, staff and their families at risk, but particularly targets children with disabilities that put them at higher risk for severe illness, lingering disabilities, or even death due to Covid-19.

Students with health conditions or disabilities that make them vulnerable to Covid have a right to attend school without endangering their health or safety. Schools who have children with these conditions have legal obligations under federal disability rights laws. This is a disability rights issue. Not imposing mask requirements effectively excludes these students from public schools, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The Covid-19 pandemic has not absolved South Dakota schools from these requirements.

While online learning is a possibility, schools are offering fewer robust options this year — often just prerecorded lessons — that don’t fulfill the needs of students with disabilities who benefit from more interaction with teachers. The Rapid City School District offers a limited number of online learning portals to students to learn from home. Otherwise, parents have the option to homeschool their children.

But for students with disabilities who need the interaction, who need the assistance, who need the feedback about what they’re learning, that is not an equal education as being in the classroom in person, having the teacher interact with you. Promoting an online option for students with disabilities also segregates them from their peers. Schools can’t segregate students with disabilities from being integrated with the rest of the community.

The decision to ignore basic Covid safety measures has broad implications not only for children in the classroom, but every person connected to the school community. When it comes to public education, students with disabilities and families should not have to make a choice between health and having an equal opportunity to obtain an appropriate education in person.  Let’s not fail these students after all they have been though with this pandemic.

A version of this column also appeared in the Rapid City Journal.