Like many other schools all across the county, Mitchell Christian School this week wrapped up what has been a completely atypical school year.
With classes derailed and moved from an in-person setting in the classroom, the 175 students at the school in Mitchell and their teachers switched to a distance learning format in March after Gov. Kristi Noem requested all schools in the state to shut down their buildings as a measure to help fight the spread of COVID-19, a deadly respiratory disease that has sickened millions around the world and killed tens of thousands in the United States alone in 2020.
Gary Cookson, administrator and principal at Mitchell Christian School, said students had wrapped up their finals and were now in the process of returning learning materials and assignments to the school.
“Students and parents can come in and hand in assignments, pay lunch bills, return books and anything like that,” Cookson said.
While the school is restricting the number of students and parents in the building at any one time during the process, it is probably one of the more normal aspects of the 2020-21 school year. Having adopted a distance learning protocol on March 16, everyone from students to faculty to parents have had to adjust to a new style of learning.
Cookson said when news of the COVID-19 outbreak began to break, he suspected there would be some type of change to how teaching and learning would get done. Even so, it was still a shock when they finally had to enact a plan.
“It was a bit of a shock, and I expected it, but I didn’t expect it the day we heard about it,” Cookson said. “Preparations had to happen quickly, and the teachers were wonderful with how quickly they adapted, and they honed their distance learning skills as time went on.”
The faculty and staff settled in to complete the school year under the distance learning program, and while everyone handled the shift as well as could be expected, it was still a tough change to move from lively classrooms and school hallways to a virtual environment.
“The students missed the camaraderie, and the seniors missed a whole lot of activities and events that are a part of their senior year,” Cookson said. “It didn’t take too long into the closure that they realized that none of these things were going to happen.”
Though sports and extracurricular activities were victims of the pandemic, one part of the senior experience that the school has managed to preserve relatively intact is graduation. While the annual tradition was originally scheduled for May 9, it has been rescheduled for June 5 at 6 p.m. in the school gymnasium.
The event will be held live and in-person, but with provisions that will help maintain the safety of those in attendance, Cookson said. The number of people allowed to attend will be restricted, and a wave parade featuring the graduates will be held at the school following the ceremony.
“We want to make sure we follow the governor’s orders and stay out of the building until May 31. So we decided to wait until June, and this seems like the best possible solution, barring any unusual circumstances,” Cookson said.
With nine graduating seniors in the class of 2020, Cookson said it was possible for the school to hold a live ceremony and still maintain a measure of safety, something that is nearly impossible with a larger graduating class.
“Other schools that have a huge graduating class, there’s no way they can restrict the number of people who attend, but with us having nine families we can limit the number that can come per family and restrict the number of people in our gym,” Cookson said. “It will be less than 100. And I hope it will make people feel comfortable enough to come, at least certainly mom and dad.”
After a year filled with disappointed and cancelled events, school patrons are happy a nearly-normal graduation will be part of the plans this year.
“They are very happy we’re going to have an event, that’s the big thing. At least something will happen,” Cookson said. “With the disappointment that this couldn’t happen in the spring, at least we have a graduation ceremony coming up.”
It will be a moment of tradition to wrap up a school year that has been challenging for everyone, Cookson said. Students, parents and faculty have all rallied to do the best jobs they could over the last few months, but they are all hoping to return to the halls and classrooms of the school for the 2020-21 school year.
“The parents have been so supportive through this whole process. I know the parents became the teachers in a way they didn’t expect, and I just cannot praise my teaching staff and my parents more for what they have done,” Cookson said.