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Graves: Reflections on 2021's top story, the mask mandate

Mitchell Superintendent Joe Graves with an opinion column.

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That the Mitchell Republic, after reviewing all of its major stories, identified the school district’s mask mandate as the top story of the year was, in truth, not terribly surprising. OK, it was not surprising at all. Though I would have preferred not to revisit the controversy just now, or ever frankly, it was Mitchell’s top story last year.

What else caused an enrollment drop, actual protests by parents and students outside the high school, and a deep community divide we are still working to bridge? No, it was not the most contentious situation I have faced in my career as a superintendent, but it was certainly a contender.

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Students and members of the public protested the reinstatement of the Mitchell School District mask mandate outside Mitchell High School in early September. The mask mandate controversy was the top story from the Mitchell Republic in 2021. Matt Gade / Mitchell Republic
Matt Gade

It was also one of the most discouraging.

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Public schools, from the beginning in America, were intended to be broad umbrellas, stretching wide enough to be welcoming to all members of the republic. (Or at least all those deemed to be full citizens, schools having had their own unfortunate, even damning, history.) But, at their best, schools have served as Statues of Liberty, welcoming “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to” get an education. Public schools should strive to be acceptable places for all children.

But they haven’t been, not always. And when they have lapsed in this goal, people leave them. This is not a criticism of such people so much as it is either failure of the schools to stretch their arms widely enough or a situation in which all middle ground unavoidably fell away.

Two historical examples come to mind. The first was in the 19th Century. The Irish, the Polish, and a number of other ethnic groups were taking the Statue of Liberty at her word. One of the things many of them had in common was religion. They were Roman Catholic. Many public schools of the time were determined not to just educate the children of these immigrants, teach them English, and Americanize them, they also insisted on teaching some very anti-Catholic sentiments.

When such became objectionable enough to their parents and when their church provided private schools at reasonable tuition, millions fled the public schools and the Catholic School System was born. 1.6 million still so enroll. This is not a bad thing. After all, competition is good for any field, education included. It is, nevertheless, an example of what happens when middle ground cannot be found, when people don’t feel welcome in their local, public school.

The second example came in the 20th century, as court decisions ruled out school prayer and catechetical instruction in schools. These were followed up by various curricula and content that parents did not want taught to their children, such things as sex ed, death education, multi-cultural non-sexism, globalism, etc. When parents had had enough and when the courts continued to rule against them, they removed their children from the public-school classroom. They opened private religious schools, non-denominational but largely Protestant, and a few non-sectarian schools.

They also charged headlong into the home-schooling movement, which has grown significantly, even dramatically, in the last decade and especially the last two years. When the public schools wouldn’t or couldn’t accommodate the belief systems of parents and their children from every sector, enrollments dropped.

When we, when I, failed to find common ground for parents who objected to wearing masks in school, similarly, enrollments dropped, probably about 2% in Mitchell’s case. It was either a failure on my part or a situation in which the middle simply would not hold. I’m a poor judge of which is the case simply because I lack objectivity. That will be for others to decide.

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

What I can say is that we/I will not give up. We will continue to look for ways to spread the umbrella just a little bit more, to welcome in all children, whatever the political, religious, or cultural views of their parents. We will do so because of the promise of public schools in America, the promise of a free education for all, of a mingling of all peoples in the open forum that is the classroom, and the desire for an Americanization of all of our children, in the very best sense of that word.

Related Topics: EDUCATION
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"My best advice as a faith leader is to seek out where you can find the Spirit, God’s active presence in the world, still at work. This can be in the talented medical staff taking care of your loved one; this could be in the network of friends who rally to your side. The Spirit is there, at work, somewhere."
A regular column from Terry Woster
A regular opinion piece from columnist Terry Woster.
A regular column from Terry Woster