The Mitchell Board of Education continues to receive criticism for its decision last month to require facemasks in district K-12 buildings for the 2021-22 school year, with several speaking out during the public input portion of the most recent meeting of the board.
The meeting took place Monday at the Mitchell High School Library.
The back-to-school protocols, which includes the mask requirement, were not on the agenda for the Sept. 13 meeting, which means the board could take no action on the issue. The part of the meeting set aside for public commentary, which is included on every regular meeting agenda, is specifically included to allow patrons to address the board about items that are not on the agenda.
And audience members took advantage Monday night.
Approximately 20 people spoke over the course of about an hour on the mask subject, with one speaking briefly in favor of the decision. The vast majority opposed the mandate with commentary that ranged in topics from the ineffectiveness of masks, the physical and psychological impact of mask use, personal freedoms and the process by which the board came to hold the special meeting last month.
Valerie Johnson, a member of the audience at the meeting, said she opposed the board taking any recommendation from the National Education Association and the Center For Disease Control due to their stance on abortion. The NEA has come out in support of school districts following CDC guidelines on COVID-19, which includes using masks.
"The NEA is the largest teaching union and workers union in the country. The CDC is supposed to be all about science," Johnson said. "In 2019 the NEA made a statement that they support elective abortions, despite the fact that it cuts short the lives of future students. I hope you would never seek advice from the NEA."
Dwight Stadler, who has spoken out against the mask requirement at several meetings, said the behavior of the board was not just unacceptable, but criminal.
"What you've done is sentenced our children to unhealthy conditions, and I equate that to child endangerment and abuse," Stadler said. "Parents (should) file a criminal complaint against each and every one of you. You don't get to escape from this. You're not going to get by without hearing from us again. You need to change this policy. You have to wake up from the false propaganda that masks are the solution to everything. They aren't."
Jacki Miskimins, another member of the audience, spoke in support of the moves the board has made.
"I have three children in the district, ages 5, 7 and 9, and masking does not bother them. Fortunately they are positive little people and very healthy, for which I'm grateful," Miskimins said. "I wanted to say that I appreciate the leadership you've shown, I support the decision you've made, and specifically I really support the process and the input you've taken, like phone calls, emails and text messages from those who haven't always been able to be here in person."
Several members of the crowd asked about how the decision to hold the special August meeting was decided, asking where in any meeting minutes the decision could be found. Deb Olson, president of the board, said the decision came after Joe Graves, superintendent for the Mitchell School District, had consulted with Avera health officials, after which Olson herself said she made the move to hold the special meeting.
"I believe I was the one that said it's time for a special meeting, and knowing that we need to have 24 hours notice and wanting to give plenty of time for the public to see the notice, we had a conversation Thursday, and instead of Friday, we had the meeting on Monday so we were sure to give plenty of time for people who wanted to attend the meeting."
The August meeting decision has spurred protests among district patrons. Many held a protest in front of Mitchell High School recently to voice their displeasure with the mask requirement. That has caused an exodus of sorts from some Mitchell School District classrooms.
Prior to the public commentary, Graves said in his regular report that 37 students had opted to transfer out of the district due to the mask requirements, and approximately the same number had opted for home schooling or remote learning while remaining with the district.
The district's last COVID-19 update, dated Sept. 7, indicated the district had a total of 9 active cases of COVID-19 in the district, with an additional two cases having recovered.
The mask mandate in question was approved in August by the board on a 5-0 vote. The specifics of the mandate as passed are as follows:
Anyone on K-12 district property will be required to wear a mask from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Outdoor extracurricular activities may be held with no masks required.
Indoor extracurricular activities will require masks, except for participation when participants are actively engaged in practice or competition.
Parents will need to provide a mask for their child to wear at school.
If the child forgets their mask, the school will provide one for them.
In classrooms with a student who has a documented hearing impairment, masks that allow the speaker's lips to be seen will be worn. Clear masks or facial shields will be worn by early literacy teachers, speech teachers and others when situations require.
The board said it would revisit the back-to-school protocols, which includes the mask requirement, at its Nov. 8 meeting. It will hold its next regular meeting Oct. 11 at Mitchell High School.
MTC welders purchase
The board approved the purchase of several welders for the school.
The Mitchell Technical College welding program recently determined that it requires seven welders, specifically a Lincoln PowerMig 350MP EDUC PAK welder. The board publicized bids for the equipment with the following two bids received:
Matheson Trigas Inc., of Sioux Falls, $58,747.78.
A-Ox Welding Supply (Mitchell), $61,950.00.
Graves said the low bid from Matheson met specifications for the seven welders, so the board approved its bid for 58,747.78. Two-thirds of the funds necessary for this purchase will be provided through state money and one-third coming from Mitchell Technical College funds.
The board approved the purchase by unanimous vote.
The board held its yearly review and approved a set of goals for the Mitchell School District during the 2021-22 school year.
Graves said there is usually overlap with goals from years past, though a few newer items were included with the recent set. Some goals that have been achieved and become part of district operations have been deleted, while others have been revised. Some others have been added due to new challenges from the state and federal level.
Major points of the plan include fully implementing the South Dakota Next Generation Accountability Model, meeting additional student achievement goals, develop and implement a district-wide professional development plan, updating the 5-year facilities plan, reviewing district technology and lunch program goals, maintaining current strong financial condition of district finances, reviewing K-12 and MTC board policies as well as program-level goals at the five K-12 schools.
The board approved the review by unanimous vote.
The board approved the following personnel moves:
The new classified hires of Anthony De La Torre, CCC instructor at Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary and Longfellow Elementary, $13.50, effective Sept. 2 and Cheryle Aslesen, L.B. Williams Elementary Power Strong Interventionist, $25,000, effective Sept. 1.
The 6th class assignments of Nikki Rodas, Daniele Erdmann, Heidi Cap and Bob Lemon. All assignments are effective for the 2021-22 school year.
The resignation of Lisa Vermeulen, computer aide at Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary and Longfellow Elementary, effective Sept. 3.
The new Mitchell Technical College hires of Jacob Anderson, substation temp student hire, $12 and Brandon Edwards, substation temp student hire, $12. Both hires are effective Sept. 9.
In other business, the board is expected to:
Appointed Matt Christiansen as a delegate to the Associated School Boards of South Dakota delegate assembly. Olson was named as an alternate.
Consider new and revised current policies related to students in alternative instruction on second reading.
Hear board member reports.
Hear the superintendent report.
Hear public commentary.
The meeting is open to the public. The Mitchell Republic will livestream the meeting.