School sign

This school sign has been dark since the first part of March. Parents are waiting anxiously to see when it will light up again.

With a new school year fast approaching in South Dakota, the usual feelings of excitement, anticipation and opportunity have been replaced with angst, anxiety and worry.

The COVID-19 pandemic has cast a pall of uncertainty over whether students, teachers and staff can safely return to schools for in-person teaching and learning. As of mid-July in South Dakota, the vast majority of public schools appeared poised to open in late August and bring children back to the classroom, though many are offering a remote, home-based option.

To better understand what people at all levels of the public education system are enduring, South Dakota News Watch in early July contacted several South Dakotans on the front lines of the fall 2020 return to school.

Before school starts, Jodi Jensen and her husband are facing a decision that could have life-or-death consequences for their son, Justin.

Justin is a gregarious, high-achieving sixth-grader who loves going to school in Huron. According to his mom, Justin desperately wants to see his friends and teachers again.

Jensen wants to send him back to school in August, but the coronavirus has created agony over the choice of whether Justin returns to classes, undergoes remote learning through the school district or begins a home-school program with his mom.

If Justin became infected with COVID-19, the likelihood of major complications, possibly even death, is high due to a number of comorbidity issues created by previous and ongoing illnesses.

Justin had whooping cough at two weeks old, which destroyed part of his bronchial function. Later, he contracted Kawasaki Syndrome, a lymphatic disorder that can cause swelling in coronary arteries but also swelling of mucous membranes in the mouth, nose and throat. Justin also has dysautonomia, which inhibits his ability to regulate body temperature, and he suffers from severe asthma.

“When he catches even the slightest cold, he gets very sick very quickly and it turns into pneumonia very quickly,” Jensen said.

See full story in this week’s Leader-Courier.