As students strolled into school, a line formed on the sidewalk.

Will you mask, or not?

A group of more than 130 Mitchell students and parents held signs and stood in front of Mitchell High School on Wednesday, they gathered to peacefully protest the newly enacted mask mandate.

Connor Trode, a MHS student, said his reasoning behind joining the protest wasn’t necessarily about the masks. Rather, he said it was the Mitchell Board of Education’s unanimous decision to go against the “majority of students and parents” who spoke unfavorably toward the mask mandate.

“They just didn’t listen to anybody,” Trode said as vehicles drove down Capital Street in front of the high school, honking and waving at the protesters.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

While some students protesting claimed they were told they were going to be suspended for taking part in the protest, 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.

“They are still my students, and I want to treat them with respect and their rights to peaceful protest,” Childs said as he delivered lunches to the student protesters gathered outside of the high school.

After the Mitchell Board of Education unanimously approved bringing back another mask mandate to the Mitchell School District on Monday, which includes MHS, Wednesday was the first day students were required to wear face masks on school grounds. The school board reacted in what members considered an emergency response to rising COVID-19 numbers.

As of Wednesday morning, the South Dakota Department of Health’s website cited a total of 65 active COVID-19 in Davison County with two hospitalized at Avera Queen of Peace. Mitchell School District said there are four active cases of COVID in the district, three of which are at Mitchell Middle School and one at the high school.

‘They have rights’

Eighth-grade student Kenna Soulek said she was sent home from Mitchell Middle School because she wasn’t wearing a mask.

“I was over (at the middle school) this morning, where we were removed,” Soulek said while attending the protest held on the sidewalk outside of the Mitchell High School. “And my coach looked at me and said, ‘If you continue doing this, you will be suspended and likely volleyball will be over for you. ... It's something we're willing to risk, though.”

“It's just unbelievable that we don't have a choice,” Soulek said. “We have rights.”

Mitchell Activities Director Cory Aadland addressed some of the claims that Mitchell coaches have been threatening students who protest with repercussions, which he said “is not true.” According to Aadland, student protestors will not face suspensions, repercussions or removal from a team.

“There will be no removal from a team because of any participation in the protests. They have their First Amendment rights, and we acknowledge that and respect that,” he said. “There will be no repercussions or retaliation for the protestors.”

However, Aadland noted that the school’s policy for students participating in extracurricular activities like football, band and volleyball, to name a few current activities in motion, outlines students must attend school to participate in practices and games. Therefore, a student who was protesting on Wednesday and was absent from school, Aadland said it would make them ineligible to practice or play a game.

“Unfortunately, we have a group out there that is spreading false information that kids will be kicked off a team. That just isn't true,” Aadland said. “With that being said, school attendance is a requirement for extracurricular participation. So those students who are not at school are not eligible to practice or participate in a contest for that day, and that’s no different than any other day.”

While Mitchell Superintendent Joseph Graves said students who protested the mask mandate will not face any suspensions, he noted that not attending school comes with repercussions.

“It’s like this: you have a constitutional right to express your opinions under the First Amendment, so nothing involved with that has any penalties. I have no problem at all with the students expressing their opinion and opposition to a mask mandate, that’s their right as American citizens,” Graves said. “However, by not attending school you are breaking a training rule or a rule of the South Dakota High School Activities Association. But if that violates the training guidelines for something else like extracurricular activities, that’s the price you pay.”

‘No-win situation’

For Valerie Johnson, a former teacher and mother of six with one child still attending Mitchell High School, it's a “no-win situation” she said of the mandates for kids and the teachers.

Johnson, who took part in the protest, said she was happy with the crowd, but wished more parents could attend saying she knew many who had to work.

Childs said he’s been having “good conversations” with the students on their stance against the mandate and their right to peaceful protest, while explaining the mask requirement is in effect.

Although day one of this year’s mask mandate has sparked staunch opposition among some students and parents, Childs said he’s doing his best to navigate through the protocols.

“This is a lot to take in, and we’re trying to navigate the best way we can,” he said.

For students who attempted to enter the high school without a mask, Childs said school officials have asked maskless students to leave. Several of the doors were locked as well during the protest.

Deb Olson, president of the Mitchell Board of Education, said she was saddened that students were missing out on classroom time in order to protest, but she said she was supportive of their right to speak out against the mask mandate.

“I honor the students' rights to protest. That’s one of the great things about living in the United States, you can protest and not fear retaliation for that protest,” Olson told the Mitchell Republic. “The second thought is I’m a bit saddened that students are missing school and missing opportunities to be in the classroom and getting the experience from teachers who are teaching, as well as learning from their peers”

She said she had been in contact with school administrators during the morning protests at Mitchell High School.

“I did get an email from (Superintendent Joe) Graves apprising me and the other board members of what had ensued this morning, and it sounds like (Mitchell High School Principal Joe) Childs and (Food Service Director Leann) Carmody took school lunches out, and I think that was a time for them to visit with the students.”

Ultimate goal is not being sick

Olson agreed with Childs that school administrators and board members consider the students of the Mitchell School District to be part of one big family, and that officials involved only want the best educational experience that the district can provide. That includes being able to learn in a healthy environment.

"I would like for students to be in school and not be sick,” Olson said. “That’s the ultimate goal.”

Mitchell High School sophomore Kallie Volk said that policy seemed to be working and was unaware of any students being bullied or harassed if they were wearing a mask at school.

“Everyone just kind of did their own thing. No one really minded the people wearing the masks. They were just doing their own thing,” said Volk, who also was told she would lose time on the competitive cheer and dance team because of her participation in the protest. “Obviously they had their reason for wearing the mask. So that is totally up to them.”

Joining the students in the protest were several parents of MHS students, who are vehemently opposed to the mask mandate that was enacted just 10 days into the 2021-2022 school year. It is expected to be reviewed on Nov. 8 at the Mitchell school board meeting.

Johnson said that she feels bad for the teachers she knows who don’t agree with the mask mandates as they’re being put into a bind, too.

“Would you want to be an enforcer of this? No. But to break their contract costs money? You know, they can't afford that. I mean, sorry, seriously, that's not a good situation,” said Johnson, who also said she doesn’t believe e-learning is the solution either. “No (teacher) wants to do that.”

-Mitchell Republic's Erik Kaufman contributed to this report.