French teacher Joe Weakland is looking forward to class on Monday, which could be the first time in two years he sees his students smile.

Following more than an hour of public comment Saturday evening from parents, medical staff, and teachers like Weakland, Teton County School District No. 1 trustees voted 3 to 3 to make masks optional in public schools for the start of the year. A majority of four votes was required to mandate masking.

Commentators and chairman Keith Gingery said continuing to require masks would be "moving the goalpost," after trustees voted in November to drop the requirement Jan. 1.

But Trustee Kate Mead, who called for Saturday's special meeting, said it was omicron moving the goalpost, and the coronavirus was a "moving target" that required decision makers to constantly re-evaluate.

"For us to change our minds from November is perfectly reasonable, given the fact that the virus has changed its mind," she told fellow board members.

Trustees Mead, Alan Brumsted and Jennifer Zung voted in favor of a new mandate, while Gingery, Janine Teske and Betsy Carlin opposed. Bill Scarlett did not attend.

More than anything, the meeting demonstrated that face coverings have become far more than the "simple protection" Mead described them as.

Those who have opposed masking requirements from the onset continued to describe masks as a symbol of fear.

Others on both sides of the mandate decision remained concerned for students' mental health.

"This is a really tough issue for me," Trustee Betsy Carlin said. "I see the wisdom in extending the mask mandate, but the other side for me is that I am not a health expert."

Teton District Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell, who did not offer public comment on Saturday, previously told the News&Guide his own misgivings:

"On one hand, I feel like it's hard to justify making kids wear masks when no one else has to," he said.

"Kids are a lower risk group to begin with; everyone in the schools is now vaccine eligible."

And children have repeatedly seen their schooling interrupted by the pandemic in one way or another, he added.

But schools also provide exactly the type of prolonged, close contact that allows COVID-19 to spread.

There is significant concern that less masking in schools will mean more students are forced to quarantine, thus taking their working parents away from jobs in vital sectors like healthcare.

Frontline nurses commented with this precise fear on Saturday, and St. John's Health Chief Communication Officer Karen Connelly told the News&Guide employee quarantines have already made it "very challenging to ensure all service areas and clinics can stay open."

On Dec. 29, for instance, 18 St. John's employees were out on quarantine.

Those absences are straining an already strained staff as they prepare for the next potential wave of COVID hospitalizations, which typically trail infections by a few weeks.

Hospitalization data has become a key marker of the pandemic's severity as people cling to evidence that suggests the omicron variant is less severe.

Gingery, for instance, pointed to the low PCU and ICU census at St. John's as an indication that omicron isn't having an acute impact.

At the same time, several commentators and trustees who spoke Saturday described close relatives and friends who were sick, likely with the new variant.

"I've never had more people close to me getting COVID," said Danielle Shapiro, a kindergarten mom whose husband works as a pediatrician.

"We've all tried so so hard for so long not to get it," she said. "I'd really be very grateful if we don't just make it inevitable now."

If teachers are forced to quarantine, there are few substitutes to replace them, which could send children back to online education. Kyle and Nick Barlow, fifth graders at Wilson Elementary School, shared their thoughts toward the end of the meeting:

"Through the two years of COVID, all my friends, they all feel great about masks," Nick told the board. "They can still breathe very well. And they feel much more safe."

"If you don't wear a mask, people could get COVID, and we could have to go back to Zoom," he added. "And Zoom was very hard for a lot of kids."

At Jackson Hole High School, Weakland said he is looking forward to what the new mask optional policy could mean.

"There is a real fatigue in the classroom after having a repeat hope of normalcy for the kids," he told trustees. "I think this is a really prime time to test the waters without masks."

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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(1) comment

Judd Grossman

No more masks.

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