Mitchell School District superintendent Joe Graves said one factor has dominated recent preparations for the 2020-21 school year.

"We've had training all over," Graves said.

That training includes yearly teacher inservices, training on new equipment and general training on how the district will cope with COVID-19 as the district prepares to return to in-person classes next week.

Mitchell High School social studies teacher Steve Morgan spends a portion of his Tuesday setting up his classroom in preparation for the first day of school at MHS on Wednesday, Aug. 19. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Mitchell High School social studies teacher Steve Morgan spends a portion of his Tuesday setting up his classroom in preparation for the first day of school at MHS on Wednesday, Aug. 19. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Mitchell is now preparing to return to live in-person classes for the 2020-21 school year, which gets underway Aug. 19. The move has required administrators in the district to contemplate scenarios that haven’t been seen since the 1918 influenza pandemic. How does the district keep students and staff and, by extension, the community itself safe from the disease while maintaining a high-level educational experience for its more than 2,500 students?

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It has been a challenge. The Mitchell Board of Education has been studying safety protocols and consulting health and government experts on safety plans on everything from classes to athletics and extracurricular activities. A recent move, the decision to require face masks for everyone on district property until they are deemed unnecessary, continues to draw criticism from some district patrons, as evidenced to the hour-long public commentary session at the Monday meeting of the board.

Joe Graves, superintendent for the district, said the continued discourse on the subject is an example of the uncertainty of the times, but the district should be ready when students walk through the doors next week.

“Clearly there is still some disagreement in the community on what we should require and what we should not require,” Graves told the Mitchell Republic. “Given that, though, our plans are well in place. Things are going well. All our supplies and materials and technology is on hand and everything is being implemented. We’re ready for next Wednesday, and I’m just delighted.”

The district put a priority on cleaning and disinfecting district facilities even before the previous school year was over. While deep cleaning of facilities is part of the usual summer schedule, school officials began the cleaning process with students and staff absent from the building during the second semester last year.

Graves said he has been happy with the process.

“It’s going very well. Truthfully, the cleaning began in mid-March. One of the things that really happened this year is we painted everything. We just painted like crazy. People don’t notice it, but most of this has all been repainted,” Graves said.

With a heavy cleaning and sprucing up, eyes now turn to teachers and students and their arrival in the classroom. New teachers in the district took part in staff training last week, and returning teachers are set for their own training later this week, Graves said. And many of those teachers are back in their classrooms preparing to teach their lessons in an age when masks and social distancing are going to be a priority for the foreseeable future.

Mitchell High School staff member Andie Star helps set up Chromebooks in the Technology lab at MHS in preparing for distributing the computers to students next. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Mitchell High School staff member Andie Star helps set up Chromebooks in the Technology lab at MHS in preparing for distributing the computers to students next. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Mitchell High School Principal Joe Childs said classrooms will look very similar to how they would look during a typical school year. Spacing has been increased where possible, but there is only so much room in a building. Masks should help when indoors, and taking advantage of nice weather will mean some classes will be able to meet outdoors early in the year.

“Most of our traditional classrooms will look similar to how they have in the past, which is why there is a masking mandate, which will protect us from some of the transfer,” Childs said. “It will be set up very similarly and as logistically as they need to be.”

Graves said there have been some requests for students to forgo in-person classes and move to an eLearning format to start the year. Graves said he didn’t have specific numbers on how many students have chosen that option, but noted that there has not been a large influx of students transferring out of the district.

“That may occur yet, as we have a few of those every year. But we also have some come in. We approved some of them (at the board of education meeting Monday),” Graves said. “In terms of eLearning, we’re still getting those numbers so we’re not sure how that’s going to work yet.”

He said he does know teachers are prepared for the contingency that some students may not be present in the classroom. The system in place should allow for any number of students in the classroom to keep up with lessons, even if the conditions aren’t ideal. After learning the system on the fly last year, instructors will come back to the classroom with experience they didn’t have before the pandemic.

“We have a system set up right now. If I have 25 kids in the classroom, are seven on eLearning or are nine? Well, it doesn’t really matter, because you have one,” Graves said.

Childs said the use of the Swivl system will allow greater efficiency for students who need or opt for the eLearning alternative. Through the system, teachers can focus video recording on their students or on themselves. Then they can review the video, add personal notes at specific moments, switch audio channels to listen to different students, and summarize the main points to improve the next day, according to the company website.

“It allows you to put an iPad or iPhone in it and has a speaker that acts as a marker or tracker. This device will then follow the speaking and capture audio and video wherever they’re moving,” Childs said.

The system has been in use sporadically at the district for some time now to help alleviate teacher absence, Childs said, and will allow students to better interact with their classroom if they cannot be there in person. The district has been working on bringing teachers who were not familiar with it up to speed on the system.

“Now for eLearners they will have audio and video at home, it will be live, so the student will be able to engage virtually in the discussion,” Childs said.

Like other buildings in the district, the high school has undergone major cleaning, a process that will continue into the school year as custodial staff looks to keep up with keeping door handles and light switches wiped down.

Mitchell Public Schools Superintendent Joe Graves, left, and Mitchell High School Technology Director Levi Hohn, right, load a box full of Chromebooks into the back of Longfellow Elementary School Principal Lisa Heckenlaible's truck to take over from MHS to the elementary school for distribution for the students when they return to school next week. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Mitchell Public Schools Superintendent Joe Graves, left, and Mitchell High School Technology Director Levi Hohn, right, load a box full of Chromebooks into the back of Longfellow Elementary School Principal Lisa Heckenlaible's truck to take over from MHS to the elementary school for distribution for the students when they return to school next week. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Childs said the district can make as many preparations as it wants, but there will always be instances that are unexpected. Remaining flexible for when those situations arise has been the most daunting part of preparation for the school year, he said.

“I think it’s the unknown. We don’t know what to expect. I think what all of us are trying to do is plan for things that we’re aware of, and understand that when I’m responding to situations or questions, that this is my response today based on the information I have,” Childs said. “That may change tomorrow, next week or next month. But I have a lot of great people to help me make decisions, and I’m really relying on faculty and the administration team to help us move forward.”

1900 Chromebooks are set up to distribute to kids in the Mitchell Public School District. (Matt Gade / Republic)
1900 Chromebooks are set up to distribute to kids in the Mitchell Public School District. (Matt Gade / Republic)

He said the district is encouraging district patrons with questions or concerns to stay in contact with administrators and teachers. Parents will no doubt want as much information as they can get, and Childs said district officials are available to give whatever guidance they can.

“Transparency is a topic worth discussion, and my stance is I’ve been trying to share as much information as I can, and I encourage people to reach out to their building administrators and teachers if they have questions,” Childs said. “It’s like I tell my seniors — we’re all in this together.”

The 2020-21 school year will begin moving forward on Aug 19, and despite the uncertainty that COVID-19 has brought with it, Childs said that the new year will return a social and emotional element that is crucial to good education. That’s something that everyone is looking forward to.

“I think anybody involved with school, especially students, are excited to get back together. It helps meet that social and emotional need we have to be around people,” Childs said. “We’re all looking forward to that first day.”