The Mitchell Board of Education on Monday evening voted 5-0 to enact a mandate that requires everyone in Mitchell School District K-12 buildings wear a mask.
The decision, which followed more than an hour of often-contentious public input, came at a special meeting of the board at the district's Performing Arts Center. The meeting, previously scheduled to be held at the Mitchell Career and Technical Education Academy, was moved to the larger facility due to the large crowd of about 300 people.
The motion, pushed forward by Deb Olson, president of the board, and seconded by Kevin Kenkel, will require masks in all K-12 district buildings from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Masks will also be required on school buses at all times students are present. The mandate will take effect Sept. 1.
(For video, scroll ahead to about the 3:45 mark for sound).
The board is expected to review the mandate again at its Nov. 8 meeting.
Several people spoke on both sides of the issue during the public input portion of the meeting.
Josh Klumb, state senator for District 20, spoke during the portion of the meeting dedicated to those in opposition to the requirement. He encouraged the board to allow district patrons to make their own choice on the matter.
"I've visited with the governor's staff and she has no desire to tell school districts what they can do on this issue," Klumb said. "Control your urge to wield your powers over teachers and students in this district. Let everyone make their own decisions."
Chris Nebelsick, another district patron who also ran for the board of education in the last election cycle, said his experience suggests that students are better off without masks on their faces.
"In my travels coaching last year I went to many different school districts, some had mandates and some had nothing," Nebelsick said. "The difference between the ones that did have a mandate and those that did had very little to do with COVID-19, but the joy and activity in schools that did not have mandates and that did not social distance were much greater, and the schools were much healthier for it."
Several people also spoke in favor of reinstating the mask requirement.
Amy Stemper, whose son contracted COVID-19 during school this year, said the difference between masks and no masks is what caused her son to become ill.
"(Last year) my children wore masks all year, all along with the children and staff. My children never got COVID-19," Stemper said. "What's the difference between my children who went through the whole school year not contracting COVID-19 versus three days into the school year and contracting it? A mask. My mask protects you and your mask protects me, we all have to do it in order for it to work."
Shawn Boehmer, a 15-year-old in the Mitchell School District, said the number of deaths from COVID-19 compared to the deaths from masks can't be compared.
"There have been 637,000 deaths in the United States from COVID-19, but I cannot find one example of someone who has passed away from wearing a mask. Masks cannot harm us, only help us."
Following the vote, members of the board expounded on their positions.
Shawn Ruml said he preferred not implementing a mask mandate, but cited the fact that vaccines are still not available for children under 12 and that health care professionals were urging school districts to put a mandate in place.
"That is why I'm going to be voting for the mask mandate," Ruml said.
Brittni Flood also said she did not want a mask mandate, but saw no other choice at this time.
"I personally do not like wearing a mask. But if that's what we need to do to help keep these kids safe, then that is what is right," Flood said.
Matt Christiansen, another member of the board, told the Mitchell Republic after the meeting that a mandate is the right move at this time.
"Obviously it's a difficult decision, but several pediatric organizations have recommended masks, and their experience has shown they are helpful," Christiansen said. "I think there is no other choice than to require them right now. Hopefully, the current surge will run its course quickly and we can return to school without masks. I think everyone would would prefer that."
Kenkel, who seconded the motion made by Olson, declined to speak on his vote after members of the audience continued to interrupt him during his comments. He later declined comment to the Mitchell Republic.
Olson said that the experience of last school year, as well as a student she knows personally who contracted COVID-19 over the summer and still can't participate in cross country because of lung damage, leads her to support the motion.
"For that reason, I'm in support of this requirement of masks," Olson said.