The Mitchell Board of Education voted to approve a preliminary plan for reopening the school district to in-person classes for the 2020-21 school year, including a requirement for anyone on district property to wear masks.

The board approved the motion by unanimous 5-0 vote following roughly an hour of commentary from the members of the public on the subject. Deb Olson, president of the board of education, noted that the document is subject to further review as the school year approaches and as it gets underway on Aug. 19.

A group of about 50 members of the public, some wearing masks and others not, gave various opinions specifically on the mask requirement question that has arisen due to the outbreak of COVID-19 around the country. Several raised concerns about how a mask requirement would affect the health, safety and educational experience of the students. Some indicated that there was no proof that cloth and other masks do not fully filter out the virus.

Others argued that the Center for Disease Control guidelines suggested that wearing masks does slow the spread of the disease is slowed where people practice social distancing and mask wearing.

Members of the board listened to over a dozen individuals who spoke on the issue before approving the preliminary reopening plan, with some saying it was one of the most difficult issues they had faced in their time on the board.

Neil Putnam, who has served on the board for two decades, said he wrestled with the mask mandate but decided to support it after a letter signed by about 20 Mitchell-area physicians, supporting the use of masks as a path to a safer reopening of the school district.

“In my 20 some years sitting behind this table, this is one of the most difficult issues I’ve had to deal with in some time,” Putnam said. “I’ve been struggling with the idea of requiring masks, as I’m a little concerned about how we do the enforcement.”

He hoped the school could provide some guidance on how to encourage students to use good practices in social distancing, as well.

Lacey Musick, another member of the board who made the motion to approve the preliminary reopening plan, said while getting students to wear masks as much as possible may be a challenge, but students learn other practices over time, and these practices should be no different.

“Masking at the elementary level has its challenges. But with any learned behavior, it becomes less of a challenge. You learn to stand in line, to raise your hand, to speak when called upon and not when a teacher is speaking,” Musick said.

She said she would vote according to CDC guidelines, as well as information from the South Dakota Department of Health and scientific data.

Kevin Kenkel, a member of the board, said he agreed returning to live classes was the best option, and whatever they could do to ensure the safety of everyone involved, from students to staff.

“Everyone wants to return to face-to-face classes this fall. We need to do everything in our power to ensure students and staff members can return to a safe environment,” Kenkel said.

Matt Christiansen also said he supported the idea of requiring masks.

“With everything we’ve heard, it boils down to whether we mandate masks, and if we do, how do we do it,” Christiansen said. “The science shows masks help our neighbors. It doesn’t help me. For that reason I support mandating masking. I think we have a great district and I think how we do it can be addressed by administration.”

The board approved a document titled Student Services Return to School Protocols. That document includes the following passage on masks:

  • Anyone on district property will be required to wear a mask until such a time as the pandemic is deemed to be over.

  • Each student will need to provide a mask to wear at school.

  • If your child forgets his or her mask, the school will provide one to your child.

  • Accommodations: In classrooms with a student with a documented hearing impairment, masks that allow the speakers lips to be seen will be worn. Clear masks or facial shields will be worn by early literacy teachers, speech teachers and others when the situation requires it.

Other sections of the document provided information on pre-screening for students, pick-up and drop-off of students, entering and exiting buildings, hand washing and sanitizing, touch surface cleaning and procedures for the cafeteria and meals. The document is expected to be up on the district website in the next few days.

Deb Olson, president of the board of education, said she also struggled with the issue, but in the end came down on the side of needing to require masks for the safety of students, staff and the community at large.

“I want to start the school with students present, that is number one. And I want to stay in school, I don’t want to have to go to eLearning,” Olson said. “And it’s my desire that all students and teachers will be COVID-19 free for this school year. That is my heart of hearts desire. And with masks being so effective in reducing the spread, it just causes me at this point in the life of this virus to say that we don’t have any other option other than to say we need to require masks.”

After the vote, Olson stressed that the document remained preliminary and that adjustments can and likely will be made going forward.

Personnel

The board approved the following personnel moves:

  • The new classified hires of Patricia Sides, paraeducator at Longfellow Elementary, $11.26, effective Aug. 4; Mercedes Riggs, paraeducator at Mitchell Middle School, $11.26, effective Aug. 19; Jennifer Buchholtz, paraeducator at Longfellow Elementary, effective Aug. 4 and Haylee Constant, paraeducator at Longfellow Elementary, $11.26, effective Aug. 4.

  • The new certified hires of Danieka Novak, 21st Century co-coordinator, $10,999; McKenzie Mertens, freshman girls basketball coach, $2,601; Karli O’Connor, 8th assistant girls basketball and 8th assistant volleyball coach, $3,461 and Hallie Tate, English teacher at Mitchell Middle School, $51,200. All hires are effective for the 2020-21 school year.

  • The transfers of Allison Pierson, Mitchell Middle School adviser, $1,051, effective for the 2020-21 school year, and Jessica Mowry, paraeducator at Longfellow Elementary to special education paraeducator at L.B. Williams Elementary, effective Aug. 2020.

  • The Mitchell Technical Institute hire of Kerry Hagemeier, accounting/business instructor, $53,000, effective Aug. 1.

  • The resignation of Beth Schneider, instructional strategist, effective July 21.

Other business

Also at the meeting, the board:

  • Reorganized for the 2020-21 school year, including assigning official depositories, nominating and election of board president and vice-president and swearing in of new or appointed board members. Deb Olson was elected board president and Neil Putnam was elected vice-president. Board member Matt Christiansen was sworn in again as a member of the board.

  • Approved membership in the Associated School Boards of South Dakota.

  • Held a public hearing on the 2020-21 K-14 budgets. The board approved the following tax levies: In the general fund, $1.443 per $1,000 of ag valuation; in the special education fund, $1.684 per $1,000 of total valuation and for the capital outlay fund $4,350,000 in taxes requested, or the maximum that can be raised.

  • Heard reports from board members and the superintendent.

The next meeting of the board is scheduled for Aug. 10.