Mask mandate preview

Jackson Elementary School Principal Tracy Poduska directs students to the correct entrance for their grade on the first day of school last year.

“It’s so much harder to go backwards. We need to err on the side of protecting our children.” — Lou Hochheiser Former St. John’s Health CEO

Despite strong recommendations from health officials, face coverings remain a controversial topic as school districts across the country open classrooms for in-person learning.

In Teton County the masking decision will most likely be made by school board members, who will convene Wednesday for a special meeting with a single agenda item: decide on face coverings in schools.

The proposed “Smart Start Plan” states that masking requirements will be based on community COVID-19 transmission. If the county’s risk of transmission is deemed red (high) or orange (substantial), masks would be required for all students. If the risk drops to yellow or green, the mandate would ease to a recommendation.

On Tuesday, Teton District Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell took a similar approach by proposing a countywide mask mandate. The public health order — which could go into effect Thursday pending public comment — would require masks in all district schools, with exceptions, and would remain for 10 days unless COVID-19 transmission drops to low or moderate.

After 10 days, the mandate would need to be approved by Teton County commissioners to remain in effect. To be proactive, the school board could still approve its own mask mandate, separate from the county.

Before the Teton County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees votes on the updated plan for schools, the public will have a chance to comment in person and online via Webex.

Parent letters are pro

Out of about 45 letters sent to the school board, 36 parents and six teachers expressed support for a mask mandate, while two parents opposed it.

“This is not a question of freedom or anyone’s constitutional rights. This is a public health issue,” wrote Brooke Walles, the parent of a third- and seventh-grader, who supports a universal mandate.

“The effectiveness of masks was proven last year. Our school board and teachers followed a plan that allowed students to attend in-person learning with limited disruption because of the protections masks provide,” she wrote.

Another parent, Hans Flinch, wrote specifically with concern about quarantines if masks weren’t required.

“Since January, I have lost roughly five weeks of working time due to my children being quarantined due to a positive exposure at their school or activity,” he wrote. “This has resulted in my wife and I working late nights, less sleep, economic losses and in general more stress on our family.”

Some parents said they wouldn’t feel comfortable sending their children to school if masks weren’t required, and others expressed concern for unvaccinated students.

Karen Wattenmaker, coordinator of assessment and data for the school district, had a simple message: “Universal masking will provide a better education to our students.”

Mask opponents emphasized parent choice. One asked for a mask exemption based on “my strong moral belief of not covering my daughters face,” and threatened to pull her daughter from the district if the request was denied.

Another parent said she was considering virtual school through Wyoming Connections Academy.

Mattie Sheafor, a third-grade teacher who wrote in favor of masks, said her students have adapted amazingly well.

“We looked at the photographs from the historical archives of other Americans who endured the Great Influenza and we decided we too, could do hard things,” she said.

COVID-19 cases spread

The school board agreed Aug. 11 at its last regular meeting before the school year to hold a special meeting closer to the start of classes to decide on mask mandates.

The main reason for the delay, Superintendent Gillian Chapman said, was to monitor the rapidly changing conditions of the coronavirus. It also allowed time for Health Officer Riddell to impose a broader mandate.

In the two weeks since that meeting, COVID-19 cases have continued rising in Teton County, which moved into the red risk level for community transmission. The Health Department began administering additional vaccine shots to immunocompromised people and started planning a community update to inform the public of current virus conditions and preventative measures.

On Tuesday, Dr. Riddell published plans for a 10-day mask mandate, which applies to most public spaces, including public and private schools. The public can weigh in on the proposed public health order by emailing this address: healthordercomments@tetoncountywy.gov.

“The continuing increase in cases, hospitalization, and significant breakthrough cases among fully vaccinated individuals are all concerning,” Riddell said. “It’s time to return to a multi-layered approach in order to protect the most vulnerable in our community.”

Scientists, including those at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have strongly recommended masks as a precaution proven to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Where that leaves schools

Even if Riddell’s order is implemented, there’s no guarantee commissioners will extend it beyond 10 days. That means a vote by the school board could still be critical.

Schools that opened without mask mandates in Mississippi, Indiana and Georgia have already been forced to return to virtual learning, CNN reported. In Mississippi The Associated Press reported that nearly 20,000 schoolchildren were in quarantine due to school outbreaks last week, with at least 29 schools shifting to virtual learning for two weeks.

Teton County has the benefit of vaccines for students 12 and older, and the rate of inoculation for that demographic, 65%, is significantly higher than the rest of the state (17%).

But that still leaves younger children and their families vulnerable, not only to the virus but also to mandatory quarantines that will require child care and interrupt learning. While Gov. Mark Gordon has declined to issue a statewide mask mandate, he reminded residents Monday that masks and vaccinations limit the need for quarantines.

Local health officials and pediatricians who spoke with the News&Guide said it makes sense to start the year with masks.

“It’s so much harder to go backwards,” said Lou Hochheiser. “We need to err on the side of protecting our children.”

Hochheiser, a former St. John’s Health CEO, is also a grandfather with children in the school system. He’s nervous that testing and contact tracing won’t be sufficient.

Looming over the school board’s decision is the knowledge that a lack of caution could lead to an outbreak that sends students back to virtual education.

If the board approves the updated Smart Start Plan, all students age 2 and older would need to wear masks, assuming the county remains at elevated risk of transmission. Some students may receive medical exemptions from a health care professional.

It’s not yet clear what role vaccination status will play in determining masking requirements, but growing evidence suggests vaccinated people can still transmit the virus.

Contact Evan Robinson-Johnson at 732-5901 or ERJ@jhnewsandguide.com.

Evan Robinson-Johnson covers issues residents face on a daily basis, from smoky skies to housing insecurity. Originally from New England, he has settled in east Jackson and avoids crowds by rollerblading through the alleyways.

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