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

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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% 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.

Recommendations over requirements

Wyoming’s vaccination rate remains the third lowest in the nation, with at least 42.3% of the population receiving at least one dose and fewer still, 37%, 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.

Marcela Gramcko, a third-year University of Wyoming pharmacy student from Caracas, Venezuela, extracts the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine in preparation to vaccinate a patient. (University of Wyoming)

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.”

District by district

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.

A police cruiser parks outside Natrona County High School in Casper on June 11, 2021. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

“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.

Click this link for a directory to Wyoming school districts and schools. Many post their back to school plans on their websites.

Dustin Bleizeffer

Dustin Bleizeffer has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 20 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily covering the energy industry in Wyoming. Most recently he was Communications...

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  1. When I got my COVID shot, I was asked to remove my double-lined well-fitting cloth mask (just like the ones shown in the photos above) and replace it with the flimsy blue “dentist” masks provided by Teton County’s Health Dept. Clearly, they have very little faith in the masks most people wear (reusable cloth masks). Liberal Teton County, which loves their mask mandates, has the worst infection rate in the state. (see: https://www.mayoclinic.org/coronavirus-covid-19/map/wyoming). Most of the infected are locals (tested). Who knows how many leave Jackson untested after getting the virus here and spread it back home.

    A safe and effective vaccine beats a mask. Are our vaccine options safe and effective? As I posted elsewhere, my partner had a bad reaction to the Moderna vaccine that lasted for weeks and she was denied a 2nd shot until she forked over her own time and money to have a doctor determine if it was safe for her to get the 2nd shot. We are already being asked to consider booster shots, and not just because of the Delta version of COVID. Safe & effective? For some, most likely. But, let’s look at some data that was recently published in the Wall Street Journal:

    “A new MAYO Clinic study found that Moderna’s vaccine was 76% protective against infection and Pfizer’s 42% in July, versus the 94% to 95% against sympotomatic illness (exhibiting symptons) in their clinical trials. Both remained 75 and 80% protective against hospitalization (which means that not everyone is fully protected from serious illness – up to 25% in this study).

    We find new data every day. We find new side effects. We find new variants. We find new requirements for masks, etc.

    Often dismissed because of its source, but solidly on the mark, is this quote from Donald Rumsfeld:

    “Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult ones.”

    Only fools state that they have hard cold facts about the safety of the vaccines that apply to all. You take calculated risks in life. I got my vax. Do I trust it to protect me? I trust none and nothing. I have hope and roll the dice (well after millions first got theirs). History proves how foolish it is to trust the medical community which can’t make up its mind if, say, eggs are safe to eat. The professionals change their opinions, often. As with COVID, the facts rarely live up to the hype from both sides of the pro & con debate. You can die from COVID with or without a mask or vaccine. What are the odds? Always changing.

  2. Meanwhile deaths of unvaccinated Wyoming Seniors of all ages are popping right along. Very few of the covid deaths of seniors are even tested at all much less reported by the various county coroners.

  3. Great to know how how many scientists, medical “experts” reside here in Wyoming. Once again in Wyoming, from the very top to the ever-more crowded bottom, ignorance reigns supreme. Let’s add that to the phoney-baloney Cowboy Code of Ethics, it should be number 1 on that sacrosanct list.

  4. That’s leadership, Governor Gordon! Next step…defer to each classroom, voting district, or block association wanting to establish its own medical/scientific criteria for public and student health.

        1. If is not enumerated in the constitution it is not a power of that body.
          It is therefore a decision to be made by lower bodies or the individual.
          Show me where it says the governor can order you to wear a mask that has been clinically proven to do nothing to prevent infection.
          It doesn’t.
          And mandating experimental vaccines is against international law.
          Forcing someone to take a shot against their will is a hanging offense.
          The Nazis did it, and the world drew the line.
          Why are so many people so ignorant and scared?
          Because they don’t ask hard questions and they watch too much TV.
          You must question everything the government says. Everything.

          1. So what you are saying is that the constitution does not actually contain anything that supports a single point you are trying to make, and that you are also oblivious to applicable state law, legal precedent, basic historical facts, and basic facts in general.
            Too much tv is right, but too much youtube rabbit-holing and social media doom-scrolling even more-so I’d reckon…