In its monthly review of the district’s Smart Start Plan, the Teton County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees unanimously voted to make masks optional and focus testing and quarantine efforts more on symptomatic students.
Starting Saturday, masks will be optional in school facilities. Quarantines will likely not be required if exposed students are asymptomatic, though district nurses and leaders will still make those decisions on a case-by-case basis. Parents and guardians will be notified of a classroom exposure at the elementary level; at the secondary level, notifications will be sent after two or more exposures. Rapid antigen tests, molecular tests and PCR tests remain available upon request.
Teton County schools had previously implemented some of the strictest COVID-19 prevention policies in Wyoming, and those measures didn’t come without controversy. Parents and some teachers have vocally opposed mask requirements based primarily on concerns for individual freedom or for the students’ mental health.
On the flip side, those who supported universal masking — especially as the omicron variant caused more infections than any other COVID surge — said the masks helped students feel safe in the classroom.
Under the Wyoming Health Department’s quarantine guidelines, universal masking is the primary way to prevent student and staff quarantines after an exposure to someone who tests positive, especially if people are unvaccinated.
In Teton County, about half of 5 to 11 year olds are vaccinated. Children under 5 are still ineligible for the vaccine, and on Friday the Food and Drug Administration delayed its review of the shots that Pfizer is testing for that age group.
The school board’s Wednesday evening decision came after another two-week reduction in regional COVID cases. Countywide cases are down 85% since omicron’s Jan. 16 peak. Superintendent Gillian Chapman told the board that the Test-to-Stay program, which moved from the district headquarters to individual schools, was only finding a handful of positive students per day.
Some board members pushed for optional masking because of the perception that high-quality masks like an N95 or KN95 sufficiently protect the wearer, even if others are unmasked. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not directly made that assurance.
Trustee Kate Mead supported the new policy but said she will keep wearing her mask to protect immunocompromised family members.
Trustee Betsy Carlin reminded the school community the Smart Start Plan (now more of an exit strategy) is a living document the board will continue to review. “We need to be adaptable,” she said.
In an email to school board Chairman Keith Gingery and Superintendent Chapman sent a few hours before their meeting, Teton District Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell recommended “easing back on some of the school district’s COVID restrictions in a controlled, stepwise manner.”
That counsel aligned with an email from Public Health Director Jodie Pond sent the same day.
“Based on our county’s high vaccination rates and low hospitalization rates throughout the omicron surge, we believe that Teton County’s situation allows a phased approach to lifting some of the COVID-19 mitigation measures in the schools,” Pond wrote.
Breaking down what that could look like, she recommended removing the mask requirement Feb. 14 while continuing to test symptomatic students and staff members after an exposure. She also recommended the schools host a vaccination clinic for children 5 to 11 in partnership with the health department. Their goal is for that age group to be 85% vaccinated.