May 21—Classes and activities will take a step toward returning to normal next week when the district mandate that requires everyone on district property to wear a face mask will be rescinded.
Joe Graves, superintendent for the Mitchell School District, confirmed the move to the Mitchell Republic on Friday.
"As of Monday the mask mandate will be rescinded," Graves said. "It will be in place through the weekend, and then it will be removed."
The Mitchell Board of Education established the district mask mandate at their meeting in July of last year, when the COVID-19 pandemic was in its early stages and infections, hospitalizations and deaths were on the rise. The decision was a controversial one, with members of the audience often speaking out against the mandate at board of education meetings.
Graves, who had said at recent meetings of the board of education that the goal was to begin the 2021-22 school year with no mask mandate, said the time was right to end the requirement thanks to the waning of the deadly global outbreak in and around Mitchell and South Dakota. The availability of vaccines and the consistently low infection numbers at district schools played into the decision to remove the mandate, as well.
"All of our employees who wished to be vaccinated have been, and student vaccinations are now available. Our numbers are low, and our activities in the summer are small and we are able to easily socially distance, so it's time," Graves said.
The latest report on COVID-19 infections in the district, released on Friday, list only five active cases of the disease in the district.
The general mask mandate will be removed come Monday, but some activities, such as girls golf and boys and girls track and field, will maintain mandate requirements until the end of their respective seasons.
Some measures that were established to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 will remain in place despite the mask mandate repeal, Graves said, such as a continued emphasis on social distancing and the presence of hand sanitizer and physical plexiglass barriers that will continue to be used for the time being.
One district event that will still require mask use is graduation, which is set for Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Corn Palace. Graves said masks will be available for students, faculty and visitors at the occasion.
"Masks are required (for graduation). We will be providing masks for all the graduates and anyone on stage. We've also reduced the number of people who can attend," Graves said. "We usually pack the place, but we'll be at 50% capacity."
Graves said the district would continue to monitor the situation should infection numbers spike or different guidance from health care officials urges a return to a mask mandate. But for the foreseeable future, the mask mandate will be a part of the past.
"Our plan right now is that the mask mandate will not come back, but everything is in flux," Graves said.
Everyone from students to faculty and administration will be glad to have the mandate behind them, Graves said.
"This is what we were all hoping would happen," Graves said.