CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Judging on the amount of eyeballs both in the Board Room at Storey Gym and virtually on Zoom, Monday’s Laramie County School District 1 Board of Trustees meeting had been one many people circled on their calendars.
The reason? The board was once again going to debate the district’s indoor mask requirement for its schools when community transmission was considered “high risk” by the CDC, a policy that had been in place since a September special meeting.
A decision either way would likely ruffle some feathers, but the board ultimately decided to leave masking choices up to parents and children — yet not without weighty debate by members of the board.
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An addendum to the district’s “Smart Start Plan” to mitigate COVID-19 spread that would make masks optional in the district’s schools beginning Jan. 24 was passed late Monday night with a 4-3 vote, officially marking a future end to the mask requirement for those who wish to not wear them in LCSD 1 schools.
Masks starting on that day will be “highly recommended but not required,” with a two-week buffer for families and staff to have additional time to “considered their vaccination choice,” per the addendum, which can be viewed in full here.
In addition, beginning immediately, asymptomatic individuals in the district who have been exposed to COVID-19 will not have to quarantine. Symptomatic individuals will be sent home and cannot return to work or school until they’ve been fever-free for 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medication and symptoms are “significantly improved,” per the addendum.
Following “scores of emails from left, right, center” from parents and others involved in the community on the subject, per board Vice Chair Marguerite Herman (who voted no on the addendum), the decision from the board one was few on it (if any) took lightly.
In every case of a member speaking, however, the viewpoints were passionate.
“COVID is here to stay, and we have to learn to live with it like we’ve learned to live with influenza and other types of viruses and diseases,” Assistant Treasurer Christy Klaassen, who voted yes on making masks optional, said in the meeting. “I would state again we have to treat our kids with a level of respect that we show our adults. Adults in this state have a choice, and I believe that we need to give our students a choice.”
Treasurer Brittany Ashby suggested prior to the vote a motion to push back the vote regarding the mask mandates to the board’s next meeting on Feb. 7, citing a wish to see how the status of COVID current trends changes. However, after sensing that the board wasn’t interested in the motion, she later withdrew it.
Ashby later voted yes on optional masks, but did bring to light concerns among teachers — along with her own fears — and her difficulty on ultimately coming to a decision.
“It is hard. It is really hard,” Ashby said. “I know some of [the audience] are much more convinced that it says one thing or the other, but wow. … I desperately want to find the answer, and there is no answer.
‘We also have terrified teachers that they’re going to take [COVID] home, because they’re the adults. That’s fair, that is fair, y’all. I also do not want us to end up without teachers in the classrooms or substitutes in the classrooms, and that scares me to death. It scares me to death.'”
Assistant Clerk Alicia Smith was more adamant of optional masks, voting yes on the motion and expressing support at the two-week buffer between Monday and Jan. 24 for families to “react and make decisions for their children,” she said. The CDC recently recommend boosters of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for ages 12 to 17 five months after their initial double dose, whereas the CDC has recommended that children aged 5 to 11 be vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine since November.
With no mask mandates in the City of Cheyenne, Laramie County or the state of Wyoming at the moment (along with updated quarantine and isolation protocols recently released by the CDC), Smith said that anything different than an addendum to the district’s protocols would be “circumventing and doing more than they’re requiring us to do” as a district that has relied on “the advice of our authorities” throughout the pandemic.
“We are more restrictive than our kids than our county is — on any of us — and our state is,” Smith said. “We are imposing on mandates that nobody else has to live by. We’ve got to move away from it. … I’m not sure that we’re ever going to get to a point where COVID just goes away. And I really think we need to as a board, and in thinking about this district and how we move forward, we’re not going to contain COVID, we’re just not. So we need to figure out how we’re going to manage it.”
Clerk Rich Wiederspahn was the most vocal of the members in support of keeping mask requirements. He voted no on the addendum and to therefore keep the mandate in place, basing his decision off the “advice that [the board] is getting from our state and county health officials,” he said.
Other comments he made related to the efficacy of masks received derision from some members of the audience, which caused board Chair Rose Ann Million Rinne to warn that continued disruptions would recess the meeting to another time.
“Our primary responsibility — and my primary responsibility, I believe — is to keep kids in school,” Wiederspahn said. “I’m not convinced that if we remove the mask mandate that that’s going to happen. … If I vote against this and it does pass, I really hope I’m wrong. I would like nothing better than to have our kids out of masks and be able to go to school everyday and our numbers continue to go down.”
With those in attendance both in-person and virtually watching, the vote on the addendum then occurred as scheduled, with Klaassen, Smith, Ashby and Trustee Tim Bolin voting yes and Herman, Wiederspahn and Rinne voting no. Rinne exercised a longtime active board policy — last revised in 1989 — that allowed her to vote on the item.
Now that a date for optional masks had been established, many in the crowd erupted in applause immediately following the ruling. Time will tell, however, the ruling’s impact on COVID’s presence in local schools and, as a result, the community.
The Wyoming Department of Health provides COVID-19 case, variant, death, testing, hospital and vaccine data online. The department also shares information about how the data can be interpreted. COVID-19 safety recommendations are available from the CDC.