Regardless of school officials’ decision on masking this year, students, parents and staff were likely to feel uneasy about a return to classrooms.
The delta variant of the coronavirus is surging through the country, and despite a 71% vaccination rate, Teton County is not immune. Local breakthrough cases are already appearing at alarming rates — St. John’s Health has reported that 20% of COVID-19 hospitalizations since July were vaccinated patients — while growing evidence shows that children can contract and spread the delta variant whether they’re vaccinated or not. Child cases are also becoming more severe and increasingly require hospitalization.
From a public health standpoint, a return to in-person education comes with significant risk. As Teton District Health Officer Travis Riddell put it: “Schools will regularly constitute some of the largest, most sustained indoor gatherings in Teton County. Without masking this fall ... school-based outbreaks could be commonplace.”
The first day of school, Monday, comes amid a suite of canceled public events, including concerts, fundraisers and Jackson Hole High School’s annual Bronc Bash. Teton County’s risk of COVID-19 transmission remains “high,” as weekly case counts continue to rise.
In an attempt to keep students, staff and the broader community safe, school officials voted Wednesday to approve a universal mask mandate in public schools. The Teton County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees unanimously supported the precaution, which board members said would help prevent quarantines and ensure a high standard of education.
Last year, local public schools provided hybrid education, with four-day weeks and flexible Fridays, and most were able to maintain low levels of COVID-19 infection thanks to preventive measures such as mask wearing.
“It worked last year and it will work again,” trustee Kate Mead said at Wednesday’s meeting.
The school board heard extensive public comments Wednesday from what chairman Keith Gingery called a “very educated constituency.”
Drew Ramsey, a father and Jackson Hole psychiatrist, implored the board to keep mental health top of mind. Another parent told the board that its muddled approach to quarantine procedures could lead to “chaos.”
St. John’s Health nurse Elizabeth Whitaker showed up in scrubs and offered testimonial on the efficacy of mask wearing. As the hospital’s safety officer, Whitaker said personal protective equipment has helped keep staffers safe from COVID-19.
But Whitaker is also the mom of two elementary school students, who could get sick at school and require her to quarantine. Such absences, Whitaker said, would stress an already “overburdened” St. John’s staff.
Many Jackson businesses are similarly short-staffed, and staff quarantines have already forced temporary closures at places like The North Grille at Jackson Hole Golf and Tennis Club. A staffer’s infection at the Living Center forced a weeklong delay of senior residents’ move to Sage Living.
In the school district, outbreaks could quickly derail education.
“We don’t have subs because they can’t find places to live in the community,” Mead said.
Other trustees said the approach to quarantines still needs to be shored up. Currently, the decision depends on students’ vaccination and masking status.
Superintendent Gillian Chapman agreed to revise the district’s vaccine language and revisit its quarantine procedures at the board’s Sept. 8 meeting.
Epidemiologists say safe reopening of schools will require comprehensive COVID-19 testing and rapid quarantines to limit the risk of an outbreak.
Under the approved school mask mandate, students and staffers need to wear face coverings regardless of vaccination status, unless they secure a mask exemption through a licensed physician.
Masking will be required until the county’s risk of COVID-19 transmission significantly decreases.
In Jackson’s private schools, staffers are enforcing similar safety protocols.
Mountain Academy of Teton Science Schools is requiring masks for all lower, middle and upper school students and staff. Masks are optional at the preschool level. Jackson Hole Community School is also starting the year with a universal mask mandate.
This article has been updated to correct Elizabeth Whitaker's last name. — Ed.