SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Two South Dakota school districts which have implemented mask mandates this school year have now chosen to go without.
Both the Mitchell and Huron school district voted Monday night to forego the mandates, for the time being. KELOLAND News spoke to officials from each district to hear why.
Deb Olson is the president of the Mitchell School Board of Education, which she has served on for nine years.
Olson says in-person board meetings have seen increased attendance since the start of the pandemic. “When we’ve had in-person board meetings, we’ve had more people in attendance. We’ve had more public commentary during the more recent board meetings since the pandemic,” she said. “Before that, public commentary was generally limited.”
This increased commentary has at times been heated. “At times it’s difficult,” said Olson. “There just doesn’t seem to be a way that will satisfy all of our constituents — there has been criticism of the board. There has been some difficulty within the community, but I think every board member, whether they agreed with the vote outcome or not is invested in doing what they believe is necessary for each student in the district to receive a quality education.”
Olson points out that one such factor which might affect the quality of a child’s education is being out of school sick with COVID-19.
Although she is not opposed to masks, Olson voted nonetheless to remove the mask mandate. The vote was 3-2 in favor of the move, and Olson says the decision was based upon input not only from the community at large, but also the local medical community.
Olson has a lot of trust in doctors. “When I have a question about my health — I contact my local physician, and when I get my recommendation from that physician I believe that he or she has had years of medical school, time as a resident, maybe even extended training beyond that. I look to those people, those experts, to help guide my decision making.”
This reliance on medical expertise was echoed by the Mitchell Schools superintendent Joseph Graves, who gave an outline of how mask mandates have been used in the district. “For the 2020-2021 school year we wanted to make sure the students got back, and so we took a number of precautions and we instituted a mask mandate for the entire year,” he said.
Graves said this mandate worked well, allowing them to stay in school the full year.
“When the new school year (2021-2022) had begun — we decided we would only reinstate [the mask mandate] if our numbers really started to grow or if we heard from our local healthcare community that we had an issue,” Graves said. “Very soon we did hear that from our local healthcare community and so at the end of August our school board voted to reinstate a mask mandate for this school year.”
The board, in deciding to reinstate the mandate, also set a review date of Nov. 8 to revisit the mandate.
“We looked at our numbers — we continued to consult on a weekly basis with our local healthcare community, and they basically at our November meeting had said to me at least that although a mask mandate would still provide protection, they understood it was becoming more and more difficult to have in place, that our numbers were staying low and that it was time to move on to vaccinations as the way to address the pandemic,” said Graves.
In late October, the opportunity for children ages 5-11 to be vaccinated became a reality. This means that nearly all school aged children in the U.S. will now have the opportunity to be vaccinated, which the medical community hails as a huge step toward reducing the spread of COVID-19.
The fact that the Mitchell School Board voted 3-2 is an indication that a consensus was not reached. However, according to Graves, the divide was not so wide as some may expect.
“What it came down to was two of our board members really would have preferred maintaining the mask mandate at the elementary level. That has some logic to it,” said Graves. “It would have allowed the vaccinations to have taken place for the parents who want it, etc… and so there was an attempt to amend the original motion, which was to remove the mask mandate all together — to removing it grades 7 through 12, but keeping it in elementary through Christmas break.”
That motion, which would have provided time for parents who desired to get kids ages 5-11 vaccinated, failed. Olson explained why.
“I saw some merit in that proposal,” she said, though she would go on to vote against it. “I also saw that the motion that was on the floor to amend was for K-6th, and I thought that it would be difficult in our middle school, because our middle school is grades 6, 7 and 8. It would be difficult for those students that are 6th graders to be in a building with students who are not masking.”
In the Huron School District, the vote to remove the mask mandate was unanimous. “It was a 5-0 vote,” said Garret Bischoff, chairman of the school board. “Everybody was in favor of it.”
Bischoff says at the district currently has a system of thresholds for COVID-19 precautions. 0-.66% percent infection means the district is in the “Green” threshold, wherein masks are not mandated. This is where the district currently sits.
According to Bischoff, this isn’t where the school year started. “We started the year — we were operating in Green — but then the medical community really started saying hey we’ve got a problem here, you guys might want to watch this.”
Bischoff says at that point the district began masking once again and then adopted the threshold system. The other levels in this system are Orange (.66-2%), in which masks will be worn on busses and in hallways, and Yellow (+2%), in which masks are worn in all areas.
“We adopted thresholds and we’re confident the plan’s working,” said Bischoff. “We don’t see spread within the school and our students aren’t getting sick,” said Bischoff.
The benefit of this plan is that if numbers rise in the schools once more, board action is not required to reinstate masking.
“It’s an evolving process,” says Bischoff. “Our school board members are there because they love every student in the school district. They want the best for them and that’s all we’re trying to do, is simply create a safe learning environment.”