EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to include information about a new masking policy at Albany County School District #1.
Students, parents and educators preparing for another year of in-person classes across Wyoming expect the state’s low vaccination rate, limited mask usage and ongoing Delta variant surge to result in new school-borne cases of COVID-19, including among children. Gov. Mark Gordon’s office, elected school boards and an apparent majority of the Wyoming public have decided that’s an acceptable risk.
“How our COVID plan works is, masks are optional,” Sheridan County School District #2 Superintendent Scott Stults said, describing his district’s approach to back-to-school protocols — a policy shared by most of the 48 school districts in the state. “So it’s a choice; children can choose to wear masks, staff can choose to wear a mask. It’s totally their call.
“We also know that based on the choice they make, there are consequences, of course — positive and negative — as with any choice we make,” Stults said. “Are we going to have kids that are going to contract COVID? Absolutely. We know that.”
School trustees and administrators say they recognize the risk to children and adults, yet it’s a risk that many parents and others who oppose mask mandates are comfortable with. Many school trustees are basing their mask-policy decisions on that general sentiment.
Casper resident Travis Sides, for example, thanked Natrona County School District #1 board members at their Aug. 9 public meeting for choosing not to implement a mask requirement. Mandating masks, he argued, would take away students’ free will and ability to think for themselves.
“The kids need to be around other kids and need to be able to play like they normally play and socialize like they normally socialize,” Sides said. “That’s what’s going to help them. … Mask mandates hurt the kids more than it helps them, and obviously it upsets a lot of parents.”
Gov. Mark Gordon told reporters during an Aug. 16 press call that his office will not issue another mask mandate for schools. School districts that might choose to require masking will have his support, he said, but not his directive.
“No mandates will come from this office,” Gordon said. “I think that local governments can make their own decisions about what is necessary to keep the public safe and to keep businesses open and the economy growing. I am a Republican and a conservative. I believe in government that is responsive and closest to the people.”
Others are less reluctant to mandate masks in Wyoming schools.
The University of Wyoming Board of Trustees issued an order requiring masks on campus until at least Sept. 20. Masking is also required on the Wind River Indian Reservation, where the vaccination rate remains higher than the rest of the state. The mandate, by order of the Wind River Inter-Tribal Council, applies to all indoor public spaces, including schools and outdoor public gatherings.
Teton County School District #1 will consider a proposal that would require masking indoors and in crowded outdoor settings if the county’s transmission risk designation moves into the “red” or “orange” categories, as determined by the Wyoming Department of Health. The Teton County School Board will hold a special session Wednesday to discuss the mask policy.
Albany County School District trustees on Monday voted 7-1 to approve a mask requirement for all K-8 students through Sept. 3. A special meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Sept. 1 to hear public comment about potentially extending the mandate. The meeting will take place at Laramie High School.
A federal mandate also requires masking on all K-12 student activity buses.
Otherwise, masking remains optional throughout Wyoming schools, although that is subject to change, district by district.
In a press release Monday from Gordon’s office, State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist reiterated the benefits of getting vaccinated and wearing a mask inside schools.
“While there will be no state vaccine mandate in Wyoming, we know promoting vaccination among eligible students, school staff, family members and throughout our communities can help schools stay open and vibrant as well as help keep students and their teachers in the classroom,” Harrist said. “An additional benefit to COVID-19 vaccination is that individuals who are fully vaccinated and identified as close contacts do not need to quarantine, which can be helpful in the school setting.”
Quarantining also may not be necessary if a person is masked when potentially exposed to another who tests positive for COVID-19 while in a school setting, according to the governor’s Aug. 23 press release.
An increasing number of children and adolescents are falling ill to the Delta variant, and those under the age of 12 are particularly at risk because they cannot get vaccinated, Natrona County Health Officer Dr. Mark Dowell said.
Dowell, an infectious disease specialist for Wyoming Medical Center in Casper, said he wants to see students return to in-person classrooms. But he worries about those who remain unvaccinated and compliance with recommendations from national and local health officials to mask at schools.
Dowell is also alarmed by national reports of schools in other states already forced to curtail plans due to spikes of coronavirus infections just weeks after schools have reopened, he said.
“There is little doubt that we will see a significant uptick” in COVID-19 infections, Dowell said. “One of my colleagues lives in a neighborhood where every single family has kids that are infected. “
The Delta variant is more than twice as contagious as previous variants of COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Several Wyoming hospitals have reported staff shortages due to COVID-19 infections among employees as the number of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations continue to rise.
“There is concern about the percentage of children that will have months of illness after they get it, including lack of concentration, fatigue, not focusing well on their schoolwork,” Dowell said. “We don’t really have a grip on what this virus can do to kids for months after they’re infected.”
Some children will become infected and not experience symptoms, Dowell said. But they can still transmit the virus. Dowell believes young students will model the behavior of adults in their lives, he said, and that might help determine how the pandemic plays out in Wyoming.
Unvaccinated adults who work in schools will be “sitting ducks” for infection, he added.
“Mask your employees, mask your kids, is my advice,” Dowell said. “This virus is rampant in our community. And my goal is to keep the kids healthy, the parents associated with the kids healthy, and the schools to open safely. … But ultimately it’s their decision.”
Difficult choices for parents
Retired school teacher and current member of the Wyoming State Board of Education Debbie Bovee shares a home with her daughter and five K-12 school-age grandchildren. Three are under the age of 12 and ineligible for a vaccine.
Bovee, 67, also a former Democratic state Rep. for District 36 (2017-18), said she’s concerned for herself and everyone in her household despite extra precautions they take when in public spaces. Online or remote learning remains an option throughout Wyoming schools, but that’s not always practical for families with working parents, she said.
“There’s really not much of a choice for a lot of families,” Bovee said. “Take your life into your hands; that’s what we’re telling kids and their families.”
Bovee recently helped establish a private Facebook group, “Casper Covid Response Network,” to organize and support those who want to encourage school and public health officials to insist on more stringent COVID-19 safety measures. Bovee said the perception is that parents like those in the group are outnumbered in Wyoming. Whether that’s true or not, she said, they do feel intimidated by instances of threats in Wyoming and throughout the country.
The often-intense battle over masking should not be playing out between parents and local school districts, Bovee said. It’s the result of higher authorities abdicating their responsibilities to protect their constituents in the midst of a public health crisis, she said.
“I resent that the governor is more worried about his own popularity than the children of this state, which is proven by saying he will not put out a mask mandate.”
Administrators at Sheridan County School District #2, Natrona County School District #1 and other districts say they are implementing strict no-bullying policies regarding people’s choice of whether to wear a mask in schools. But those efforts ring hollow, Bovee said. Last school year, students tended to segregate themselves between mask-wearers and non-mask-wearers — a recipe for isolation and potential bullying, she said.
Worse, Bovee said, school administrators are giving in to bullying behavior for not insisting on the best, scientifically backed COVID-19 health and safety practices they proclaim to understand.
“Bad behavior is being rewarded,” she said.
Parents and others packed a NCSD#1 trustees meeting in Casper where two police officers stood guard on Aug. 9. There were no disruptions at the meeting, and all seven people who spoke during the public comment period thanked trustees for not issuing a mask mandate. Those who addressed trustees also stressed the importance of in-classroom learning. Some suggested that even if a mask mandate were ordered by state or federal authorities, the district should defy it.
“We’re going to be loud and bring it to you if we go down that road [mask mandates] again,” one commenter told trustees.
Click this link for a directory to Wyoming school districts and schools. Many post their back-to-school plans on their websites.
Read the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance for COVID-19 prevention in K-12 schools.
Click this link for COVID-19 information and Wyoming-specific data from the Wyoming Department of Health.
CLARIFICATION: This story’s headline has been updated to clarify that a school official anticipates that some students will contract COVID-19 this fall. It has also been updated to clarify the way Teton County School District #1 will determine a potential mask policy.