Some students leave Mitchell School District due to mask requirements

Other area schools see little enrollment change due to COVID-19 policies

Mitchell High School students are dismissed for the day on Thursday afternoon. Officials with the Mitchell School District say the district masking mandate has likely led to some students leaving the district to open enroll in other districts or opt for homeschooling, though other area school districts have seen only minor changes in enrollment due to COVID-19 policies. (Matt Gade / Republic)

The Mitchell School District has likely seen students leave the district due to the mandate that all people on school property must wear a mask, according to school officials, though other area districts have seen little change due to COVID-19 policies.

“Looking at all the different things that have occurred, we have lost probably 12 to 15 students as a result of the mask mandate,” Joe Graves, superintendent of the Mitchell School District, told the Mitchell Republic.

The outbreak of the disease pushed schools in South Dakota to adopt an online learning format for the second half of the 2019-20 school year, forcing teachers and students out of the classroom. But schools have returned to live, in-person classes for the 2020-21 school year, and many districts have found their footing after a summer of planning for a safe return.

The Mitchell School District has one of the more restrictive face mask policies in the area. Everyone on school property is required to wear a mask, with exceptions in place for medical conditions. The policy has received pushback from some district parents, including an incident at the most recent school board meeting that saw a member of the audience removed by police for refusing to abide by the mandate.

Graves said he did not yet have official enrollment numbers for the 2020-21 school year, but he did estimate that some students have left the district due to the policy.


He figured overall K-12 enrollment will be even or a little down from last year, which saw the student population at 2,784. The students leaving the district have chosen to open enroll elsewhere or opt for homeschooling, he said.

The mandate is a burden on everyone, from students to teachers, both of whom have adapted as best they can to the situation, Graves said. And while there have been members of the public strongly opposed to masking a recent board of education meetings, other district patrons have been more supportive, he said.

“I’ve had any number of people call, text and email or stop me on the street (that support the mandate),” Graves said. “There are good people on both sides of the debate and sincere people. It’s a weighing of priorities. Is your priority more on health and can we have school, or is it more protective of constitutional liberties? I get it, but we can’t do both. That’s going to leave one side or the other unhappy.”

The Mitchell School District currently has three active case of COVID-19, with one recorded at Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary and two at Mitchell High School. There are two other incidents of individuals who have recovered from disease, with those recorded at L.B. Williams Elementary and Mitchell High School.

The South Dakota Department of Education said transfers between districts would be a part of open enrollment data, which is not expected to be fully compiled at the state level until sometime in November. The department also is not tracking individual district mask policies, said Ruth Raveling, information specialist for the department of education.

" At the state level, we are not collecting data on school districts’ mask policies," Raveling wrote in an email to the Mitchell Republic.


In Chamberlain, students are again filling the halls and classrooms with protective measures in place. Wearing face masks is optional for students but mandatory for visitors, said Justin Zajic, superintendent of the Chamberlain School District. He said anywhere between 30% to 40% of students have them on at any given time, and outside visitors are generally not allowed on campus except for deliveries.

“We worked really hard this summer with ways to keep in-person classes going. That’s the method everybody knows is the most effective. We came with our comeback plan with four different tiers of reopening,” Zajic said.


Zajic said he did not have final official numbers for the district’s enrollment this year. Like many schools, he’s expecting those figures to be available at the end of September, but he said in kindergarten through grade 12 the district has a little over 900 students. He estimates that is up slightly over past years.

“Based on last year’s numbers, it’s up a little bit. Usually it’s right around 875 to 900,” Zajic said.

Zajic said he didn’t see any indication that the district enrollment numbers are going up due to transfers into the district by parents looking to move their children from other districts with more restrictive COVID-19 policies.

“I would call it more of a typical fluctuation,” Zajic said.

Zajic estimated there were about six cases of COVID-19 at the school, but those cases have not been linked to transmission at the school, he said.


Rod Weber, superintendent for the Woonsocket School District, said his district has similar COVID-19 policies in place. Masks are optional, and he estimates the majority of students do not wear them. Like Chamberlain, they also encourage social distancing, have installed plexiglass dividers and encourage regular handwashing.

He said current K-12 enrollment is at 251, which is up two from the previous school year. That is not unusual for Woonsocket, Weber said.

“We’ve been steadily increasing the last 10 years, so we’ve been fortunate that enrollment has been going up. We feel we’re doing quite a few things right in Woonsocket, and we feel that’s reflective of that increased enrollment,” Weber said.


Weber said he did believe that the district had picked up a few students from neighboring districts with more restrictive COVID-19 policies.

“We have gained a handful of students from districts that require masks,” Weber said.

Weber added that the district offers remote learning for those who feel more comfortable using it. They also encourage anyone not feeling well to remain home, as absences related to COVID-19 don’t count toward normal penalties for absenteeism.

“That’s giving parents a little bit more confidence that we’re doing things right,” Weber said.

It’s a process that takes some vigilance. Weber said while masks are not mandatory, remembering to take caution and follow the rest of the district protocols is. School officials are constantly engaging with students and staff to remind them of their social distancing obligations and other measures.

“We always have those conversations and keep reminding everyone to not be too relaxed. We have to keep it at the forefront. But I feel we have a safe school and we’ll keep putting things in if we need, but as of right now things are going real well,” Weber said.

He said the district had one student on the close-contact list prior to the start of school and one student has tested positive for the disease since school started.


At the Bridgewater-Emery School District, which does not have a mask requirement, Jason Bailey, superintendent for the district, said enrollment is up this year.


“We strongly encourage masks, but there is no mask mandate,” Bailey said.

He said the district has 330 students enrolled for the 2020-21 school year, which is up 10 from the previous year, though he did not think the increase is a reflection of parents moving students into the district specifically for COVID-19-related concerns.

“(Parents of the transfers into the district) had been in contact with us prior to even knowing what our mask policy was going to be,” Bailey said.

Bailey said district patrons and the community have been supportive of measures taken by the district to help slow the spread of the virus. It has been a learning process for everyone involved, from parents to school leaders, he said.

“We’ve been fortunate that people are very supportive of what we’re doing,” Bailey said. “There are going to be questions and trying to understand the protocols and how we’re going to handle things. We appreciate that, because we want people to know what our expectations are and where we’re coming from.”

Dealing with COVID-19, especially the issue of masks, has been an emotional issue for some, Bailey said, and it’s important to focus on the challenges of defeating the disease instead of arguing the finer points of how to fight the battle.

“I realize people have pretty strong opinions on this. I think we just need to be respectful of everyone’s opinion and we’ll do what we can to keep all students and staff (healthy),” Bailey said.


Terry Nebelsick, superintendent at the Huron School District, has been carefully planning for the start of the new school year all summer. Like the Mitchell School District, Huron is currently operating under a mask requirement, which was a recommendation from a local task force made up of government, community and health officials.


While masking mandates have prompted some parents in districts to consider homeschooling or transferring from a district, Nebelsick said that does not appear to be the case in Huron.

“We are full-time masking. That is what our medical community wanted, and so far, that has not really had an impact on enrollment,” Nebelsick said.

He said the K-12 enrollment count this year is at 2,825, which is 10 more students than it had last year.

Beadle County, where the district resides, has been hit particularly hard by COVID-19, with 679 cases recorded in the county total and 31 of them active as of Friday. That includes nine deaths, including some well-respected community residents early in the outbreak. Nebelsick said that may have served as a indicator to the public of the seriousness of the situation.

“One of the reasons that the strategies have been more accepted up here is losing some upstanding members of the community early to COVID-19. If you’ve had that in your community, there is a greater understanding,” Nebelsick said.

The measures have kept the COVID-19 case count at Huron low, with Nebelsick estimating four students and one staff member have tested positive, and those have all been traced to family connections and no spread indicated inside the school.

Still, in a district of any size, it is impossible to please everyone, he said.

“We have a group that wishes we would not mask, but we have other people that let me know in no uncertain terms that their children are not to be on the playground without a mask,” Nebelsick said. “There are both extremes who are disappointed with where we’re at. There are strong feelings on both sides.”


While wearing masks is not a particularly enjoyable experience for those involved, he said students have embraced the practice as best they can, and in some cases, taken the lead in seeing the mandate is upheld.

“They have bought into wearing masks. Because if we wear them, we get to be with our friends,” Nebelsick said. “And our athletic kids really self-regulated that we are going to mask so we can play.”

Like other district superintendents, Nebelsick said his district will continue to monitor the situation and adjust its procedures accordingly. Everyone is hoping to get back to some semblance of normalcy, but until then, he said it’s important to remember everyone is fighting the same enemy and striving to keep students, staff and community safe.

Opinions may be strong and arguments occasionally heated, but everyone is on the same team, he said.

“We have to remember that COVID-19 is the enemy,” Nebelsick said. “The school board is not the enemy. Administrators are not the enemy. Parents disagreeing with each other are not the enemy. COVID-19 is the enemy, and when we remember that, we’re all a lot more forgiving.”

Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at
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