Masks will be optional for most Wyo students as schools reopen

Rhiana Gelhart, Wyoming Tribune Eagle photo Annie Humphrey helps Aiden, 6, in a socially distanced classroom at Afflerbach Elementary School in Cheyenne.

School districts across the state are taking a wait-and-see approach to updating COVID-19 safety guidelines and protocols as students and staff prepare to return to classrooms amid a surge in infections of the Delta variant in Wyoming.

Mask requirements likely will not be a part of districts’ back-to-the-classroom plans.

In what has become a highly controversial topic, parents in many places have pressured school boards to steer clear of imposing any mandates. This is despite evidence that vaccinations and masking help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and the highly transmissible Delta variant.

“The degree of vitriol when dealing with this issue, it’s beyond the sense of what’s safe or not safe,” Wyoming School Boards Association Executive Director Brian Farmer said. “Politics has taken a role in this decision that has made it very, very difficult.”

The Laramie County School District #1 board of trustees cut public comment short during a meeting earlier this month when a resident disrupted the proceedings, yelling at trustees and refusing to give up the microphone, according to the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Natrona County School District #1 ended a mask mandate in April after parents and students protested continuing the mandate. 

Farmer said those instances, and a general attitude across the state against masking requirements, puts local school officials in a difficult position. 

“If we were to take out all of the adult (political) stuff and make a decision based 100 percent on the guiding criteria of what’s best for our students, what’s best for the kids — if that were the way the decisions were made, then I think we’d have an easier decision,” Farmer said.

Wyoming’s vaccination rate remains the third lowest in the nation, with at least 42.3 percent of the population receiving at least one dose and fewer still, 37 percent, being fully vaccinated, according to Mayo Clinic. The Wyoming Department of Health indicated that the transmission rate is “moderate-high” or worse in 15 of Wyoming’s 23 counties, based on data collected from July 22 through Aug. 4.

The surge in COVID-19 cases from the Delta variant is deeply concerning, State Health Officer Alexia Harrist said. 

“Unfortunately, Wyoming’s low vaccination rate makes our state more vulnerable to this highly contagious variant,” Harrist said in an Aug. 4 statement. “We’ve been recommending that unvaccinated people (wear) masks in indoor public settings. National experts now recommend the same for vaccinated residents in areas with high COVID-19 rates and we agree.”

Gov. Mark Gordon last week announced he will not require school districts to implement mask mandates. “Wyoming was first in the nation in having a safe and successful in-person school year last year,” Gordon said in an Aug. 4 press release. “My focus is on supporting local school boards as they take into account conditions in their community and work to assure students learn safely this year too.

“We need to follow and respect the science,” Gordon added.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends “universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.” Its guidance also states, “Children should return to full-time in-person learning in the fall with layered prevention strategies in place.”

Guidance from the Wyoming Department of Education states: “ School districts should work directly with their local community health department to establish protocols to control the spread of COVID-19 and educate their employees and students on prevention.”

The department’s Smart Start Guidance Document from July 1, 2020 will not be updated, nor will districts be required to submit their own updated Smart Start plans to the state, WDE Communications Director Linda Finnerty said.

“ If the (Wyoming Department of Health) at any time puts a statewide health order in place requiring social distancing and face coverings (when distancing isn’t possible), then schools will be required to comply with that,” Finnerty wrote in an email. “They do have the option to apply for a variance with the WDH in that case (as they did last year). The WDE does not have a role of authority in that process.”

Laramie County School District #1 will update or confirm its current guidance, but not likely until just a few days before the first day of school on Aug. 23, LCSD#1 Community Relations Officer Mary Quast said.

“We’re developing plans and back-plans and contingency plans,” Quast said. “At this point in time, we’re not requiring masks. But the (CDC) recommends masking in indoor settings, whether vaccinated or not, and we’re trying to navigate that.”

The district removed some COVID-19 information from its website this summer because guidance from the CDC has been quickly evolving, Quast said. “We’re opening school with some of those protocols in place that we maintained throughout the school year last year.”

Wyoming boasted the highest rate of in-person classroom attendance in the nation during the height of the pandemic. Though many teachers and parents alike are eager to maintain in-person classes, districts across the state will still offer online and distance learning options with no special requirements.

Like many districts, Teton County School District #1 is relying on its 2020-21 school year COVID-19 protocols while leaving its plan open to adaptation as guidance from the CDC, Wyoming Department of Health and county health officials evolves, TCSD#1 Communications Director Charlotte Reynolds said.

“As we get a little closer to the start of the year, the board [of trustees] may consider holding a special meeting to determine if conditions in our local community indicate that some level of mask requirement would be appropriate or necessary,” Reynolds said. But so far, the trustees agenda does not include a question regarding a possible mask mandate, she added.

Similarly, Natrona County School District #1 is waiting until closer to the start of school to roll out any updates to its COVID-19 protocols.

“NCSD will be sharing comprehensive back to school information with parents and guardians in the coming days or weeks,” NCSD#1 Director of Public Relations Tanya Southerland said.

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.

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