The Mitchell Board of Education on Monday will again review the district back-to-school protocols for the 2021-22 school year, including the controversial mask mandate that has drawn strong pushback from some district patrons.

The board is expected to take up discussion on the issue at its Monday meeting, scheduled to be held at 5 p.m. in the commons area at the Mitchell Career & Technical Education Academy.

The return to school protocols are listed on the agenda for the meeting. Joe Graves, superintendent of the Mitchell School District, writes in his agenda notes that he will be recommending an end to the mask mandate.

"During my most recent conversation with health care professionals from the Avera system, it was communicated to me that, due to expected declines in active cases, hospitalizations, etc., it was now reasonable to consider changing the mask protocol from required to recommended," Graves wrote. "Given that, it is my recommendation that the mask mandate be eliminated, effective immediately, and that the return to school protocols list masks as recommended."

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Brittni Flood, a member of the board of education, said she would be taking multiple factors into consideration of the decision.

"As of right now, I'm trying to take everybody's opinion into consideration and look at the way the cases have been coming in along with advice from the medical professionals," Flood said. "There are a lot of factors that have gone into making these decisions."

She said she was happy the board agreed to a deadline to revisit the issue after its decision to require masks back in August.

"That's why it's important to put a deadline on it - to revisit it and see where things are now. I'm trying to go in with an open mind to do what best for the schools, our teachers and the kids," Flood said.

The Monday meeting will be the board’s latest go-around with the mandate, the current form of which requires anyone on district K-12 property, which includes Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary, Longfellow Elementary, L.B. Williams Elementary, Mitchell Middle School and Mitchell High School to wear a face mask between the hours of 7 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.

Masks have been a controversial topic throughout the country since the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The Mitchell School District shut down in-person classroom learning throughout much of the 2020-21 school year, opting instead to move to remote classes in March of 2020 after Gov. Kristi Noem suggested South Dakota schools temporarily close as officials took steps to address the outbreak.

The district remained in remote classes for the rest of the year, and in July of 2020 the board of education approved a preliminary plan that would reopen district schools for the 2020-21 school year. That plan included a requirement that all persons on Mitchell School District property wear a mask. Board members and school officials stressed that returning to live classes was imperative to the quality of the students’ educational experience, and cited public health officials’ recommendation that those attending schools wear masks. Masks would allow for that reconnection, officials said.

The Mitchell Board of Education voted 5-0 Monday to enact a mask requirement for all K-12 buildings in the Mitchell School District. (Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic)
The Mitchell Board of Education voted 5-0 Monday to enact a mask requirement for all K-12 buildings in the Mitchell School District. (Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic)

That kicked off a year of pointed discussions between school officials and district patrons, some of whom were vehemently opposed to the mask requirement. In their arguments against the requirement, some cited the infringement of personal liberty, questioned if wearing masks was effective or even detrimental in fighting against infection of the disease and urged officials to make the public more a part of the decision-making process.

Members of the public have spoken in opposition to the mandate at practically every board of education meeting since, with extended public commentary given and some meetings becoming heated.

One meeting saw district patron Reed Bender removed from a board meeting by the Mitchell Police Division after he refused to wear a mask at the meeting, which was held at the Mitchell High School library. Bender was eventually charged with police obstruction, a misdemeanor offense, in the incident, but the trial for the case resulted in a hung jury. Prosecutors have said that they plan to seek a retrial in January of 2022.

Reed Bender is escorted out of a September 2020 Mitchell Board of Education meeting for refusing to wear a mask per district protocols in this file photo. Bender was charged with obstructing a police officer in the incident, but the trial resulted in a hung jury. (Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic)
Reed Bender is escorted out of a September 2020 Mitchell Board of Education meeting for refusing to wear a mask per district protocols in this file photo. Bender was charged with obstructing a police officer in the incident, but the trial resulted in a hung jury. (Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic)

The 2020-21 school year ended with the mandate still in place, and the board continued to debate the issue over the course of the following summer. Just prior to the start of this school year, the board of education voted 5-0 to approve back-to-school protocols that did not include a mask mandate while also moving all decisions on protocol changes from the superintendent to the board itself, meaning a vote of the board would be required to implement changes to those protocols.

The board did just that after it called a special meeting in late August to address recent surges in COVID-19 numbers around the country. Approximately 300 patrons attended the meeting at the district’s Performing Arts Center, where members of the public both opposed and in favor of the mandate made their cases before the board.

In the end, the board again voted 5-0 to re-implement the mask mandate in its current form.

Members of the board stated that though they did not prefer to require masks, bringing back the mandate was the best thing to do in light of recent infections surges.

"Obviously it's a difficult decision, but several pediatric organizations have recommended masks, and their experience has shown they are helpful," Matt Christiansen, a member of the Mitchell Board of Education, said at the time. "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 prefer that."

People take part in a protest outside of Mitchell High School  following a district-wide mask mandate for all K-12 public schools in Mitchell in this Republic file photo. (Matt Gade / Mitchell Republic)
People take part in a protest outside of Mitchell High School following a district-wide mask mandate for all K-12 public schools in Mitchell in this Republic file photo. (Matt Gade / Mitchell Republic)

The decision sparked a renewed wave of opposition, with students and members of the public peacefully protesting outside the Mitchell High School building following the meeting. Members of the public opposed to the mandate have continued to regularly attend board of education meetings and used the public commentary portion of the meetings to express their displeasure with the course the board has taken.

The board indicated that the subject would be back on their meeting agenda for the Nov. 8 regular meeting of the board and that they would consider removing the mandate at that time. According to the latest numbers released by the district, released Nov. 3, there were five active cases of COVID-19 in the district’s five schools. There had been a total of 35 cases over the course of the year, with recovered cases numbering 30.

According to statistics from the South Dakota Department of Health, as of Friday, there were 5,857 active cases of the disease in South Dakota, with 187 currently hospitalized. Davison County was listed as experiencing high community spread, with 105 active cases. The disease has killed 2,267 people in the state.

The Monday meeting of the board is open to the public. Masks are not required at this meeting, though the agenda does recommend them for those in attendance.

The Mitchell Republic will livestream the meeting.