MITCHELL, S.D. (KELO) — It’s been more than two weeks since the Mitchell School Board voted to require masks in school district buildings. 

Since the requirement went into effect on Sept. 1, superintendent Dr. Joe Graves said the school district has seen 39 students open enroll or choose to homeschool. Graves said the mask mandate is likely the main reason for the 39 students to leave the district and noted the 39 students were not part of open enrollment or homeschooling counts before the school year started.

“That’s going to take quite a bite out of enrollment and our head count for next year,” Graves said. “That’s going to impact our budget in a very negative manner.” 

Mitchell has had an enrollment of more than 2,700 students in recent years. Final enrollments will be submitted to the state by the end of September. 

Graves added the mask mandate was not on the Mitchell School Board’s agenda, but members heard about an hour and 15 minutes of public input regarding masks during a monthly meeting on Monday.  

“There’s a great number of people who are very upset about it,” Graves said. “We’ve lost some great students and some great kids. It’s taken its toll. Hopefully, this pandemic will get over and we’ll get back to normal.”  

School board president Deb Olson said it’s been a busy start to the school year, but noted she’s seen no issues when she’s been in school buildings with students and staff wearing masks during school. 

“The students are doing well, the staff are doing well,” Olson said. “I have seen compliance and I haven’t heard of particular student problems with masking.” 

Olson said there’s been a misconception that the Mitchell School Board would move to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations. She pointed out required immunizations are mandated at the state level by the Department of Health

“We’ve lost some students which is always sad, but it’s a parent’s choice,” Olson said. 

Mitchell’s mask mandate requires masks on school property from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., on school buses anytime students are present and indoor student activities like concerts and volleyball matches outside of the 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. time frame. 

The school board voted 5-0 in support of a mask mandate at a special school board meeting on Aug. 30 after health care officials in Mitchell asked school officials to help any slow surges from the Delta variant. 

Olson said Mitchell’s health system, Avera Queen of Peace, is seeing an average of three new COVID-19 patients each day. According the South Dakota Department of Health COVID-19 data, Avera Queen of Peace has five COVID-19 occupied hospital beds and one COVID-19 adult ICU bed occupied. 

“They are appreciative of the direction we have taken and the assistance we’ve given them in requiring masks,” Olson said about health officials. “The number of cases in the school is low and we are very thankful for that.” 

Olson said public input about mask requirements is not taking away from other school business during meetings.  

“The mandate from the state is that every meeting has public commentary,” Olson said. “I don’t believe it takes away from the actual agenda of the meeting. It’s just an opportunity for the public to address the board.”

Graves cites conflicting American values

In a newspaper column, Graves said two major American values — progress and resilience — are conflicting in regards to people’s response to COVID-19. After seeing how much of a flashpoint mask requirements and other COVID-19 measures have become, Graves has reflected on what has been causing so much outrage.

“I believe people are coming at this from two very different perspectives, but they’re both very American perspectives,” Graves said. “One is about health concerns and that we have a way of beating these things now. We should be able to tackle this one as well. The other perspective is the American resilience that says there’s a hard job to do and we need to get through it with resolve and commitment.” 

He called both attributes of progress and resilience “admirable” but added they are in strong conflict when it comes to handling COVID-19, a disease that is responsible for over 2,000 deaths in South Dakota and more than 660,000 deaths in the United States of America.

“It’s difficult for society when those two things come into conflict because they normally don’t,” Graves said. “In this case, they definitely have. That means we’re all going to have to be a little more understanding of each other and listen to each other.”