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Back to masks at Mitchell schools. Sorting through the vote, the protests and what it means moving ahead

“That was a gesture on the part of (food service director) Leann Carmody, Officer (Paul) Wilson and Dr. Childs to say that we’re having a disagreement, but we want you to know you’re still Kernels," said Mitchell Superintendent Joe Graves on the decision to hand out lunches to students who were protesting the mandate.

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Mitchell High School Activities Director Cory Aadland guides kids as they come into the high school wearing their masks on Wednesday during the school district's new mask mandate that began on Wednesday morning in Mitchell. (Matt Gade / Mitchell Republic)
Matt Gade

The Mitchell Board of Education reenacted a mask mandate earlier this week for K-12 schools, creating some confusion and sparking protests among students and parents in the Kernel community.

Questions and rumors circulated within the public, so the Mitchell Republic reached out to school and other officials to break it all down.

So what happened?

The rules of the mandate

The Mitchell Board of Education called a special meeting on Monday, Aug. 30, to revise its previously approved back-to-school protocols. A mask mandate was approved by the board on a 5-0 vote . The specifics of the mandate are as follows:

  • Anyone on K-12 district property will be required to wear a mask from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

  • Outdoor extracurricular activities may be held with no masks required.

  • Indoor extracurricular activities will require masks, except for participation when participants are actively engaged in practice or competition.

  • Parents will need to provide a mask for their child to wear at school.

  • If the child forgets their mask, the school will provide one for them.

  • In classrooms with a student who has a documented hearing impairment, masks that allow the speaker's lips to be seen will be worn. Clear masks or facial shields will be worn by early literacy teachers, speech teachers and others when situations require.

The school board is set to reconsider the mask mandate at its regular meeting Monday, Nov. 8.
A rundown of the Mitchell School District return to school protocols can be found at www.themitchellkernels.com .

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Mitchell School District Back To School Protocols by Erik Kaufman on Scribd

Board of Education meeting was quick, but legal

South Dakota codified law says that meetings held by public bodies, such as a school board, must be made open and available to the public, with notice that is “visible, readable and accessible” being provided at least 24 hours ahead of a scheduled meeting. For special meetings, notice must be delivered to members of the media who have requested notice.

Mitchell Superintendent Joe Graves emailed notice of the board’s special meeting to the Mitchell Republic on the morning of Friday, Aug. 27 — more than 57 hours before the meeting took place. The Republic published a story online that same day announcing the meeting and agenda items.

A representative of the Associated School Boards of South Dakota said school boards can enact a newly adopted policy based on their needs. There is no legal statute or association guideline for when a policy can go into effect.

The South Dakota Secretary of State’s office said that complaints regarding public meetings should be sent to the county’s state’s attorney, who will determine whether it warrants referral to the Open Meetings Commission.

Protesters peacefully expressing rights, police say

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School Resource Officer Paul Wilson talks with a parent outside of Mitchell High School on Wednesday morning in Mitchell. (Matt Gade / Mitchell Republic)
Matt Gade

Nearly 130 students and parents took to the sidewalks outside Mitchell High School on Wednesday — the first day of the mask mandate — to protest the school board’s decision.

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The Mitchell Police Division’s school resource officer is typically stationed at one of the district’s school buildings, but additional officers were parked on North Capital Street, patrolling the area around the high school Wednesday.

Lieutenant Dean Knippling said that there have been no issues with protestors, adding that the scene was “non-violent.” He said the division issued one citation to a driver who excessively revved his engine in a school zone, violating South Dakota’s exhibition driving statute.

Mitchell police acknowledged that protestors — who are sticking mostly to the sidewalks — are simply demonstrating their First Amendment rights, and referred any questions on truancy to the school district.

“Our stance on that is we’re not going to treat a kid missing school any differently now than we would have a week ago,” Knippling said.

There is no set number of times a student must be absent to be declared truant, Graves noted, adding that truancy is a label considered applicable for only extreme cases of absenteeism.

“As long as we believe that the student and parents are making a serious effort, then there won’t be any penalties,” Graves said. “It’s when there’s no good excuse (that truancy applies) — especially in high school. If you’re absent, you start to lose credit and get behind. That’s why we’re sticklers for attendance.”

All absences will become a consideration in the classroom teacher's final evaluation of the student's academic performance, contribution to class and final grade, the Mitchell High School student handbook notes.

Administration: Kernels are still a family

Some students and parents said that school officials threatened academic and athletic suspensions for partaking in Wednesday’s protest.

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Mitchell High School Principal Joe Childs said “no one is getting suspended” for participating. Instead, Childs said students who protested instead of attending their classes will be counted absent.

Students taking part in Wednesday’s protest were provided lunches by a handful of school staffers who brought lunch to them outside the building.

Graves said serving lunch in that way is not traditional, but under the circumstances of the week, it was important to make sure students who opposed to the mask requirements knew that they were still part of the same school family. Bringing lunch out to the students was a way to make that gesture — something school leaders felt was necessary during a contentious and emotional time.

“That was a gesture on the part of (food service director) Leann Carmody, Officer (Paul) Wilson and Dr. Childs to say that we’re having a disagreement, but we want you to know you’re still Kernels. It also gave Dr. Childs a chance to talk to people and try to rebuild some of those bridges that have, unfortunately, been burned,” Graves said.

Childs said he wants to continue treating his students with respect while acknowledging their right to peacefully protest.

Rules vary for athletics and activities

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Mitchell assistant coaches Wes Morgan, right, and Ryker Kreutzfeldt watch the action along with head coach Todd Neuendorf during a game against Brandon Valley on Jan. 19 at the Corn Palace. (Matt Gade / Republic)

For school sporting events and extracurricular activities, the mandate requires all “non-active participants” to wear a mask at indoor facilities on school grounds only, Mitchell Activities Director Cory Aadland said. However, there is no mask requirement for any outdoor facilities on school grounds.

“It is just like last year, in that masks are required for non-active participants at indoor activities on school property. But for any outdoor activity like football, golf or tennis, for example, (masks) are not required,” Aadland said. “There was a little confusion on that.”

While the board’s mandate requires masks to be worn indoors from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., many extracurricular activities take place after school and go beyond 4:30 p.m. If indoor activities are taking place after 4:30 p.m. at school facilities, Graves said masks are still required for non-active participants, which includes games and practices.

Area schools see interest in transfers, little action

Since Mitchell School District’s mask mandate went into effect, some small area schools that aren’t now mandating masks have been “slammed” with calls from parents of students looking to potentially transfer schools.

Mount Vernon Public School is one of the districts that has opted not to implement a mask mandate.

Throughout the week, Mount Vernon Principal Eric Denning said he’s had “a lot of conversations with a lot of people” seeking to transfer out of Mitchell School District in light of the newly enacted mask mandate.

However, those calls haven’t necessarily translated into a spike in enrollment as of now. Denning said he’s aware of one student who transferred from Mitchell following the board’s decision to mandate masks. But he noted that could change considering the mandate has been in effect for less than a week.

“We had one student officially start this week. But we’ve had conversations with a lot of people on transferring,” Denning said. “We really don’t know how many will actually end up transferring. It’s still early in this whole situation.”

For Mount Vernon, Denning said students can enroll at any time in the semester. While Mount Vernon Public School doesn’t mandate masks for its K-12 students, Denning said they utilize contact tracing as part of the school’s COVID-19 safety measures.

At Hanson School District, Superintendent Jim Bridge said there have been a few calls from parents considering transferring their students out of Mitchell School District and into Hanson, which is about 15 miles east of Mitchell.

“We’ve had a few calls, but nothing transpired from those,” Bridge said.

While there haven’t been any students from Mitchell School District who have officially transferred to Hanson this year due to the mask mandate, Bridge said Hanson’s sixth through 12th grades are at capacity.

“Our sixth through 12th grades are full right now anyways,” Bridge said.

The Mitchell Republic reached out to nearby Ethan School District, inquiring if there have been any Mitchell students transferring there, but school officials weren’t immediately available for comment.

Graves said there have been some inquiries about students transferring out of the district due to the mask requirement, but he did not have specific figures at the time this story was published, noting that there is a process to go through to complete open enrollment to another district.

He also said he could not comment if any teachers had resigned or been fired for refusing to wear a mask.

Following the decision in Mitchell, Yankton and Huron School Districts implemented mask mandates, while Harrisburg School District has changed its guidance from optional to strongly recommended.

Mitchell Tech is exempt from mandate

The mask requirement applies to all district K-12 buildings, which includes Longfellow Elementary, L.B. Williams Elementary, Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary, Mitchell Middle School and Mitchell High School.

Mitchell Technical College , another part of the Mitchell School District, is not affected by the new requirement. Masks are currently optional for students and staff at the technical college.

Like the rest of the Mitchell School District campus, Mitchell Technical College did have a mask requirement during the 2020-21 school year , but that mask mandate was put in place by the South Dakota Board of Technical Education — which required all four South Dakota technical colleges to require masks on campus.

“That was something that was decided through the (SDBTE) and it was through that process that we, as a system, decided that we would have a mask mandate on campus. We have not had that come down this year,” said Scott Fossum, dean of student success at Mitchell Technical College and a member of the school’s COVID-19 task force.

Fossum said the school is taking a different approach to masking than the rest of the district due to the fact that the Mitchell Technical College campus is composed of adult students and staff, with most, if not all, qualifying for access to the COVID-19 vaccine.

Many students in the K-12 system still do not have approval to receive doses of the new shots, Graves said, which is why the district mask mandate is limited to the K-12 portion of the system.

“The difference, of course, is that those are all adults. We let the (Mitchell Tech) make that call, and we support them in their decision,” Graves said.

More information on the Mitchell Technical College protocols can be found at www.mitchelltech.edu/coronavirus .

Mitchell Technical College Back To School Protocols by Erik Kaufman on Scribd

Related Topics: EDUCATIONMOUNT VERNON
A South Dakota native, Hunter joined Forum Communications Company as a reporter for the Mitchell (S.D.) Republic in June 2021 and now works as a digital reporter for Forum News Service, focusing on regional news that impacts the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
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