PIERRE, S.D. — An email from Kristi Noem’s campaign that encourages families to send their children back to school sans masks is being criticized by South Dakota Education Association President Loren Paul.

In a statement released Monday, Aug. 3, Paul said that the health and safety of South Dakota’s students and educators “is a very serious issue as we all deal with the pandemic.

“Parents and educators have legitimate concerns about how COVID-19 might impact their children’s health and the health of the adults who work in our schools,” Paul said. “The decisions to be made before opening, including the mandating of masks, must not be politicized. It is disappointing that Governor Noem’s campaign is using this very emotional issue as fodder to raise campaign cash.”

In the email, Noem’s campaign stresses sending children back to school without a mask mandate from the state.

“Our kids in South Dakota and across the country deserve the best opportunities that we adults can provide them,” the campaign email states. “That’s why Governor Kristi Noem will not issue a statewide mask mandate for distance learning, and is encouraging all families to send their children back to school — without masks.”

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In his response, Paul said that “Turning school opening decisions into a political football undermines those efforts and will put lives at risk.”

Noem’s policy director, Maggie Seidel, attempted to clarify the governor’s message in an email to the media Friday, July 31. “There seems to be some confusion about the Governor’s position on masks (largely attributable to an in-artfully crafted campaign email),” Seidel said.

Seidel directed members of the media back to Noem’s comments from her Tuesday, July 28, speech in Sioux Falls, which address Noem’s concerns over the feasibility of getting young children to wear masks in the classroom and whether masks mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in such settings.

“If people want to wear masks, that’s absolutely their prerogative — she has never discouraged wearing them. She has — and continues — to oppose mandatory masking,” Seidel wrote. “As it relates to children, what we’ve seen in European schools and elsewhere is promising - kids are in school, without distancing and without masks, and there continue to be very low transmission rates.”

Seidel added that Noem is encouraging schools to allow each family and child to make their own decisions about masking.