Back to school

Natrona County’s Centennial Junior High School band director Cara Sommers helps welcome students back during the first day of school last week.

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Less than two weeks after opening their doors, school officials around Wyoming are finding that hygiene protocols and mask and vaccine recommendations may not be enough to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks and keep students in classrooms.

School districts in Teton, Albany, Sheridan and Laramie counties have enacted masking requirements within the past two weeks despite fierce opposition from many parents and despite entering August with expectations that in-person classes could resume without them.

Just two weeks after in-person school started, Hot Springs County School District #1 opted to move all classes online for the next two weeks rather than impose a mask mandate following a surge of COVID-19 infections and exposures among students and staff. All school sports activities there have been sidelined as well.

“It’s disappointing to be in a digital instruction period this early in the school year,” HSCSD #1 Superintendent Dustin Hunt wrote in a letter to parents and district staff. “But unfortunately numbers of students and staff infected with COVID-19, or under quarantine orders, has reached the threshold of needed separation.”

In Sheridan County, some parents pulled their students from in-person classes rather than comply with a temporary mask mandate imposed during an Aug. 30 emergency meeting, according to the Sheridan Press. Some teachers were suspended for defying the mandate.

Nearly 500 students and at least eight staff members at Laramie County School District #2 have been asked to quarantine after less than two weeks of in-person classes without a mask mandate, according to LCSD #2.

Eighty students and staff at Big Horn County School District #2 were asked to quarantine after the first week of school, prompting complaints about quarantining measures.Western Wyoming Community College implemented a 30-day mask mandate, while a mask mandate at the University of Wyoming remains in place until at least Sept. 20. Officials instituted a mask mandate for all school districts on the Wind River Reservation before classes began.

Some districts, including LCSD #2 and Fremont County School District #1, have declined to enforce a federal mask requirement on buses, which was one probable source of transmission that led to about one-third of quarantines in Laramie County schools, according to LCSD #2 Superintendent Justin Pierantoni.

The Wyoming Hospital Association reported surging hospitalizations throughout the state, including an increase in the need for hospital beds for kids with COVID-19.

“There’s no capacity, there’s nowhere to place [kids] into the surrounding states, because all of their pediatric beds are full,” Hospital Association President Eric Boley told Wyoming Public Media. “So it’s about the most perfect storm you could get right now … lack of staffing, high demand and then new cases with pediatric patients.”Unlike 2020’s COVID-19 surge, the delta variant is more transmissible and it is making children sicker, Laramie County Health Department Executive Director Kathy Emmons said.

Because of national vaccine approval guidelines, kids in the U.S. remain the most unvaccinated segment of the population.

“That’s why we’ve been so adamant about the importance of protecting kids when they’re in mass gathering areas such as schools,” Emmons said. “If we can keep kids from transmitting it from one to another it’s going to help our kids stay in school, it’s going to help our parents be able to stay at work, it’s going to help our kids to be safer.”

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