Mitchell School District considering remote learning 'pretty much every day'
Increase may lead to remote learning in the future
The Mitchell School District continues to see a rise in the number of COVID-19 cases in students and staff and may be forced to move to a remote learning format in the future if case counts do not abate.
Joe Graves, superintendent for the Mitchell School District, said that while the district began the school year with the intention of maintaining in-person learning throughout the school year, the current rise in cases at the district, as well as the overall surge in cases throughout the state and county, could change that.
“It’s definitely more of a possibility now. As we’ve seen the increase in numbers with students and employees, it’s caused us to consider that carefully pretty much every day. It’s more of a possibility than it was three weeks ago,” Graves said.
The latest statistics from the Mitchell School District indicate a total of 21 active cases of COVID-19 among students and staff. Among those active cases, five have been reported at Longfellow Elementary, five at Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary, two at L.B. Williams Elementary, five at Mitchell Middle School and nine at Mitchell High School.
The district has seen a total of 82 cases, with 61 recoveries since the beginning of the school year. Graves said district statistics come through from the South Dakota Department of Health, and that any student or employee who tests positive would be included in those numbers, though it is difficult to tell if those numbers are comprehensive.
The increase parallels a recent surge in cases across the state and Davison County. The South Dakota Department of Health reported Tuesday 970 new cases statewide, bringing active cases in the state to 18,624. The state has reported 644 total deaths from the disease.
For Davison County, the statistics Tuesday show 858 active cases and 15 deaths since the beginning of the outbreak.
Graves said one classroom in the Mitchell district has had to move to remote learning due to the difficulty of masking for some students with disabilities.
A number of other schools across the state have had to move to remote learning for at least a limited period since the 2020-21 school year began. Among those schools are Andes Central, Flandreau, Freeman, Hoven, Chamberlain, Watertown, Hot Springs, Wagner and Stanley County. Rapid City Area Schools plans to move to Level 3 in its COVID-19 response plan on Wednesday, effectively moving all students to remote learning for 14 days.
Graves said it is possible that the continued increase is tied to the general surge that appears to be taking place on a wider scale.
“What I can say is that it does seem to us, based on who is picking it up and where they think they picked it up, is that it came from outside the school,” Graves said. “For the most part, when we see them picking it up, mom or dad picked it up from work, but not in all cases. We could definitely have some cases that have come from (inside the school).”
Amy Novak, president of Dakota Wesleyan University, said she also suspects an increase in cases on the DWU campus are tied to the higher infection numbers in the general community. She spoke to the Mitchell City Council at its regular meeting Monday night on the subject, where a public mask mandate was being discussed and a first reading of which was later approved by the council.
She said the school had its highest positivity and quarantine rate since the start of the outbreak and felt it was likely due to the increase an cases in the community at large.
“This caseload we experienced recently we believe is due in large part because 250 students work in the Mitchell community, and that the community infection rate has come directly to our campus, causing the surge,” Novak said at the meeting. “This situation led today to an administrative decision to move more of our classes to remote learning, and students who are not winter sports athletes will return home Friday. We will not be hosting in-person classes in December in an effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”
DWU reported 16 COVID-19 cases among its students and another five among its staff with its latest weekly update Tuesday. That is up from 13 student cases and two staff cases from a week ago and up from 10 in mid-October.
Mitchell Technical College has also seen an increase in cases, with 19 active cases reported among students and three among faculty and staff in the latest figures from the school. That is up from six active cases among students and one among employees in mid-October.
The Mitchell School District itself continues to work to overcome the challenges of the pandemic. Graves said keeping classrooms staffed when teachers are required to quarantine has been more difficult this year after a number of regular substitutes withdrew their names from the pool due to their age or other concerns for their health, leaving the district short-staffed.
“It’s definitely been a problem we’ve had. Immediately when the school year started, our sub list was cut way down. We had a number of people who were retired teachers and were among the elderly, so we lost a bunch of sub teachers,” Graves said. “But we added a bunch of DWU education department students (to the pool) and we did recruit a few others for subbing.”
He said current teachers are also handling other classes if called upon.
The district also posted an open letter to district patrons posted on the district website encouraging limiting large family gatherings during the Thanksgiving break to help keep infection numbers at the school low and thus allowing for in-person classes to continue.
“We understand that gathering as a family is a major part of the holiday season, but we also know that large gatherings can lead to an increase in positive cases of COVID-19. Limiting these gatherings is one way we, as a community, can help support the school and allow us to provide in-person instruction,” the letter, attributed to the Mitchell Board of Education and school administration, read.
Graves said the district could take more steps to mitigate the virus up to and including fully moving to remote learning.
“I think there are some steps we could be taking. We could be canceling out-of-school day events, such as concerts that we could cancel or go virtual. We could cancel practices, and of course we could do the ultimate and move to eLearning,” Graves said. “We don’t want to use that, as it has its own consequences. We will be in consultation with health care professionals for their thoughts on that as well.”
The decision whether to take those or any other steps will come as the district continues to evaluate the situation, Graves said.
“We’re hoping this thing reverses itself and the numbers start to drop and we can feel good about it,” Graves said.