School masks

Hal Wheeler puts a mask on his son, Henry, at Jackson Elementary School before sending him inside for the first day of kindergarten in September. Teton County’s spring COVID-19 metrics remain too high to qualify for an exemption from the mask mandate in schools for the remainder of the school year. 

Masks in schools could be a fixture until the end of the year.

Parents have lobbied the Teton County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees on both sides of the issue, but in the end the district doesn’t have much say in the matter. State requirements decide when the district can apply to lift the school mask mandate, and so far the COVID-19 numbers do not allow that.

Even though the Teton County Health Department has moved the county to the “green” risk level, the state lists it as being at higher risk when it comes to masks in schools.

“The county and the state do not use the same color coding system,” school board Chair Keith Gingery said at a May 12 meeting. “They use the same colors but different metrics.”

That has the potential to create confusion. If the situation in the county is stable enough to remove mask mandates for businesses, shouldn’t that apply to the schools?

That’s how some parents see it. A petition that circulated in recent weeks garnered 192 signatures in support of removing the county’s mask mandate.

Some cited that as evidence of a desire to lift the mandate in schools.

“It’s time to ease up the mask restriction as we continue to put this pandemic behind us,” parent Allison Free wrote. “Again, I respectively ask for the option to opt-out of the mandatory mask mandate.”

In writing against masks in schools, parents cited debunked information about the effect of face coverings, including that they diminish gas exchange while breathing, causing carbon dioxide to build up in the blood, a condition called hypercapnia. Studies have shown that even in people with lung impairment, surgical masks do not significantly affect gas exchange.

Others simply said it should be a matter of parental choice.

On the flip side, several parents asked that the mask rules be left in place for the final weeks of the school year regardless of what the state does, saying they are part of the reason that known transmission rates have been far lower in schools than the wider community.

“Masks are the only protection from COVID that our kids have at school,” parent Amy Kuszak wrote. “While it is true that cases are dropping in Teton County, it is not time to let our guard down.”

But the conditions in schools are not quite the same as in the county writ large, so the rules governing them are also different. More than 60% of the county is vaccinated, but until this week kids under 16 weren’t eligible for the shots, meaning the risk of transmission was potentially higher in schools.

With school ending June 11, vaccinations won’t be complete for the newly eligible 12-and-older kids until after the school year ends. In lieu of widespread vaccinations for children, the Wyoming Department has strict requirements for how districts can qualify for an exemption to the mask mandate that covers schools.

Community case rates and test positivity rates are the two measures the state uses to make that determination. Counties must be in the “green zone” for two weeks before applying for an exemption.

To meet that benchmark the case rate must be less than 19 per 100,000 people, and the test positivity rate must be less than 4.9% for the previous 14 days. If one metric is too high, a county is bumped into the next level.

The state Health Department publishes its county risk levels Thursday of each week. As of May 12, according to state epidemiologist Alexia Harrist, Teton County was in the state’s “orange zone” with 111 cases per 100,000 people, so masks in schools are likely to stay on.

“Dr. Harrist is aware that we go through June 11,” Gingery said. “So it is expected that Dr. Harrist will actually probably extend the order all the way to June 11.”

Contact Tom Hallberg at 732-7079 or thallberg@jhnewsandguide.com.

Tom Hallberg covers a little bit of everything, from skiing to long-form feature stories. A Teton Valley, Idaho, transplant by way of Portland and Bend, Oregon, he spends his time outside work writing fiction, splitboarding and climbing.

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