MITCHELL, S.D. — U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson went back to school on Monday.

The first-term congressman was a substitute at Mitchell Middle School, teaching seventh grade English and language arts. Johnson said the one-day duty was his idea, a good chance for a member of Congress to see what impact the coronavirus is having on schools and the educational process.

He stressed how important educators are right now in teaching students while managing the concerns of the virus, which includes wiping down the desks in classrooms at the end of each period and wearing a mask while instructing.

“Not only do I have students in the class, we have some that are working at home and working remotely,” he said. “You can’t forget about those students; they deserve a good education as well.”

Johnson credited regular classroom teacher Allison Pierson for leaving “incredibly detailed notes” for him to guide the class.

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“I understand what these students are learning, what the objectives of the lessons are,” he said. “You can tell she’s really a dedicated educator. She’s the one teaching this class, even when she’s not here.”

U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., visits with a fellow substitute teacher on Monday at the Mitchell Middle School. (Matt Gade / Republic)
U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., visits with a fellow substitute teacher on Monday at the Mitchell Middle School. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Johnson has teaching experience. He is a former adjunct faculty member at Dakota Wesleyan University and he said he was a substitute teacher at Mitchell Middle School 20 years ago, a position he enjoyed. He noted that today’s teachers need to be technology experts, emotionally supportive of students and have a wide knowledge base of instruction, more so than past generations.

Johnson said the chance to experience the classroom first-hand is important, because he believes too many politicians “like to opine on things they have no real exposure to.”

“I’ve got a high schooler and a middle schooler and one in elementary school, so I generally understand the life of students, but I really don’t understand the life of teachers,” he said. “This has been an eye-opening experience, and it gives me a lot more appreciation and frankly respect for the profession.”

Recently, Johnson spent time in Box Elder, Hill City, Vermillion and Huron to mark National School Lunch Week, and he will be in Spearfish on Tuesday, Oct. 20, to observe how school lunch is taking place amid the pandemic. He is the most senior Republican member of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight and Department Operations.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it would continue funding free school meals for all students through the end of the 2020-21 academic school year.

Johnson said school districts are doing a good job of maintaining options and flexibility over lunches while trying to keep students safe.

“You have some elements, like a salad bar, (that) have been clawed back because of COVID-19, but it’s amazing to me how many of these nutrition specialists have been able to evolve and adjust on the fly,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., reads a lesson plan from seventh-grade teacher Allison Pierson while substituting on Monday at the Mitchell Middle School. (Matt Gade / Republic)
U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., reads a lesson plan from seventh-grade teacher Allison Pierson while substituting on Monday at the Mitchell Middle School. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Johnson’s fill-in as a teacher on Monday sheds some light on the challenge some South Dakota school districts face in finding substitutes. Mitchell Superintendent Joe Graves said the district lost about one-third of its substitute teaching pool in the face of the coronavirus because those retired teachers are in the at-risk age group. Many of those slots have been filled, but if the virus gets worse, Graves said it will be a problem finding fill-ins.

As of Oct. 14, the Mitchell School District had 11 active cases of COVID-19 and 25 cases of COVID-19 among students and staff since the school year started in August.

“So far, our numbers have been pretty good,” he said. “As things spike and things unfold in our community, that might change. But right now, it’s good.”

Graves said there have been some complexities with making e-learning work for everyone, along with social distancing from classrooms to hallways to lunchrooms. On Monday, students ate lunch from behind plastic dividers in the Mitchell Middle School cafeteria.

“These are students, these are children and they’re not always going to manage it correctly, so it’s a game of, ‘Let’s keep getting better and improving at it,’” Graves said.

Johnson also spoke about the state’s climbing COVID-19 rates, which reached 8,388 active cases on Monday. Through Sunday, the state had added 2,147 net active cases in seven days, a span in which 35 South Dakotans died as a result of the virus.

“Almost every day I talk to medical professionals and almost without exception, they’re frustrated that South Dakotans aren’t doing enough wearing of the masks, not doing enough social distancing,” Johnson said. “And we know that those things work. We know that they can save lives. I would just ask South Dakotans to work a little harder to be that much more diligent. It’s not necessarily for you that you wear the mask, but it’s for the other people. When I walk into a room where people are wearing masks, it’s a good reminder to me that they’re concerned about this and I should pay them the basic respect of putting on my mask so that I don’t get them sick.”