The mask mandate at the Mitchell School District is over with, for now.

After more than an hour of public commentary on the issue, members voted 3-2 to accept the recommendation that the district switch from the current mask rules, which require people on K-12 property in the district to wear a mask between the hours of 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., to the district recommending but not requiring face coverings.

Among the board members, Kevin Kenkel and Matt Christiansen voted against moving to a mask recommendation, and members Brittni Flood, Deb Olson and Shawn Ruml voted in favor of the change.

The change took effect Tuesday, Nov. 9, said Joe Graves, superintendent for the Mitchell School District.

Graves had recommended the board rescind the mask mandate after consulting with local health care officials. He also cited the relatively low number of COVID-19 infections in the district. 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.

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"I feel good about it. I think we’ve gotten past the time when the mask mandate was helpful and effective. It was a tough thing for a lot of people, (No masks is) better for school culture, it's better for student discipline, better about 100 different ways. I’m delighted we’ve gotten to this point," Graves said following the meeting.

Deb Olson, president of the board of education, said Tuesday she is pleased that a time has arrived when moving from a mandate to a recommendation makes sense.

"I think it was a good thing that we were able to get to the point where we could recommend rather than mandate," Olson said. "The responses I got (Tuesday) were positive about the requirement being removed and having a recommendation instead."

Vaccinations opening up to younger people played a factor in her decision to support the repeal, she said.

"People are to the point where they're so grateful that there's a chance to vaccinate students that they feel like they can see some light at the end of the tunnel," Olson said.

She also said that despite the 3-2 vote, every member of the board is working to ensure the safety and best educational experience for the students in the district.

"Every individual member has had only the best interest of the students and their education in making the decisions that have been made. It's only been about what's best for the students and their education, it's not any personal issues or agendas," Olson said.

Those speaking out against the mask mandate outnumbered those in favor of keeping the mandate, or a revised version of it, nearly 15 to 1. Comments from those against the mask mandate included arguments against personal freedom and the effectiveness of masks against the disease.

Jeff Sand, a member of the audience and former teacher who spoke against the mandate at the meeting, also attempted to bring up the subject of his wife, a former teacher in the Mitchell School District, whom he said was terminated for not wearing a mask. Members of the board and Graves both stated that such a subject would fall under personnel and could not be discussed in an open session of the board.

"She's not here, and you can't speak for her, only an employee can speak for themselves," Graves said. "It's a personnel matter, one that the board may have to hear later."

Sand pressed the subject, asking district officials to reach out to her.

"The damage is already done. Communicate with her, that's all I've asked," Sand said, with the audience responding with a round of applause.

Others also spoke out in favor of rescinding the mandate.

Debbie Emme said that the district tried dealing with masks in their own way for the past 18 months, and now it was time to take the critics' advice and end the requirement.

"This is kind of like the flu of 1918. We had a peak, a small peak and then you're done," Emme said. "Even then they didn't require a year of masking. We did it your way the last year and a half."

John Hegg also came forward during the commentary portion of the meeting to express his wishes that the board would remove the mask requirement.

"I think after tonight it's time to move on. Let the kids be," Hegg told the board. "I definitely believe it's time to remove these masks from these children."

Alex Young, another member of the audience, also said he wanted the mask mandate repealed.

"Today I ask you to keep South Dakota great. Keep Mitchell great. Vote (the mask mandate) down and don't ever bring it up again," Young said.

Wendy Axtell also spoke against the mandate.

"As a parent I feel strongly about being in charge of my medical decisions and my children's decisions," Axtell said.

Prior to public commentary, Christiansen proposed an amendment to the motion that would have moved the mask requirement from K-12 students to only K-6 students instead of repealing it for all students. The amendment was seconded by Kenkel, but that motion failed 3-2 along the same lines as the final vote.

Prior to the official vote, the board took a non-binding straw poll to let the audience know how members were leaning on the issue. That poll was the same as the final outcome, with Kenkel and Christiansen voting against the change and Olson, Flood and Ruml favoring the change.

After more than an hour of public commentary, the Mitchell Board of Education voted 3-2 Monday night to rescind the mask mandate that requires masks to be worn in all K-12 district buildings between the hours of 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The mandate has been in place since August, when the board held a special meeting and voted 5-0 to implement the mandate until at least the November meeting of the board. The mask mandate is rescinded effective immediately. (Hunter Dunteman / Mitchell Republic)
After more than an hour of public commentary, the Mitchell Board of Education voted 3-2 Monday night to rescind the mask mandate that requires masks to be worn in all K-12 district buildings between the hours of 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The mandate has been in place since August, when the board held a special meeting and voted 5-0 to implement the mandate until at least the November meeting of the board. The mask mandate is rescinded effective immediately. (Hunter Dunteman / Mitchell Republic)

Mitchell Tech site house

The board approved the purchase of two additional lots for the 2022-23 and 2023-24 ADBC site houses.

The two lots are located at Lot 13, in Tract 1, Wild Oak Golf Club Addition to the City of Mitchell, Davison County, South Dakota and Lot 14, in Tract 1, Wild Oak Golf Club Addition to the City of Mitchell, Davison County, South Dakota.

The purchase will be made from Firesteen Links LLC for $52,500 per lot for a total of $106,808.98, including closing costs.

The district is purchasing two lots this year instead of one in order to get ahead of expected price increases and manage the reduced availability of lots in the Mitchell market.

New tractors

The board approved surplusing a CaseIH/Farmall 45 and Massey Ferguson 1643, both 2011 models. The board approved the move after Graves indicated that the two tractors were nearing the end of their useful life without significant rebuilding and because the district wanted to trade them in toward the purchase of a 2021 Massey Ferguson 2860 Hydro Compact Tractor and a 2860M Hydro Compact Tractor and auxiliary attachments.

The cost for the district, with the trade-ins, would be $42,600 and $42,700, respectively. Both purchases include a snow blower attachment.

The purchases are expected to be made through the OMNIA Partners Purchase Cooperative, of which the district is a member, and Butler Machinery Company in Huron through the Fargo, North Dakota, Butler Group.

Personnel

The board is expected to review the following personnel moves at the meeting:

  • The new classified hires of Debra Landreth, custodial at Mitchell High School, $14/hour, effective Oct. 18; Natacha Stern, paraeducator at L.B. Williams Elementary, $13.50/hour, effective Oct. 19; Cody Jenkins, paraeducator at Mitchell High School, $13/hour at 3.5 hours per day, effective Nov. 15 and Jess Huber, paraeducator at Longfellow Elementary, $14/hour at 7 hours per day, effective Nov. 15.

  • The resignations of Lena Tschoepe, paraeducator at Mitchell High School, effective Oct. 29, Merv Bouchie, golf coach, effective end of 2021-22 school year, Kayla Petersen, paraeducator at Longfellow Elementary, effective Nov. 3; Timothy Steckel, maintenance, effective Oct. 29 and Mark Horan, boys and girls golf coach, effective 2021-22 school year.

  • The new Mitchell Technical College hire of Nicole Popp, financial aid specialist, $17,000, effective Oct. 25.

  • The Mitchell Technical College resignations of Jenna Reis, admissions director, effective Nov. 19 and Jaycee Berg, admissions representative, effective Nov. 10.

Other business

Also at the meeting, the board is expected to:

  • Approved a resolution authorizing a supplement to a sublease agreement between the Mitchell School District and the South Dakota Board of Technical Education.

  • Heard a presentation on Mitchell Technical College Fast Facts 2021 and the proposed campus Ag Power lab addition.

  • Heard board member reports.

  • Heard the superintendent reports.

  • Heard public commentary.