In a meeting full of heightened emotion and at times lacking clear medical guidance, school officials ultimately voted to mandate masks in all Teton County public schools.
The mandate, approved unanimously by Teton County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees late Wednesday evening, will require all students and staff to wear face coverings as long as the county remains at elevated risk for COVID-19 transmission.
At the meeting, there was extensive discussion about the county’s color-coded risk tracker. On Aug. 19, Teton County Health Department changed its metrics for that tracker to align with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention metrics.
There remains some confusion around which data was used to send Teton County into the red (high) risk level. According to the health department, the main criteria are: new cases, based on a rolling 7-day sum, and percent of positive tests over a 2-week period. Whichever is more severe takes precedent.
At the meeting, board members reasoned that it would only take two new daily COVID-19 cases to keep the county in orange (substantial). Because the schools’ mask mandate will only lift when transmission falls to yellow (moderate) or green (low), some trustees were concerned students would be masking unnecessarily.
That’s a concern shared by about half of the parents who spoke up during public comment. They argued masking should be a parental choice, similar to the mask-optional approach taken by at least 48 other school districts in Wyoming.
Those in favor of a mask mandate, including St. John’s Health nurses, implored the board to listen to experts like Teton District Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell and St. John’s Health COVID-19 Response Coordinator Dr. Paul Beaupre.
In a letter to district, Riddell wrote: "Without masking this fall, I fear that school-based outbreaks could be commonplace, frequently resulting in quarantines of large groups of students and closing classrooms or perhaps even full schools.”
Shortly before their vote, trustees reiterated the reason people wear masks.
“It’s not fear, it’s caring. Caring for others,” Alan Brumsted said. Betsy Carlin called it “interdependency” and said parents who want an opt-out for their children would be endangering other families.
Most board members emphasized their vote was based on a need to keep students in school. Less masks mean more quarantines and more interrupted learning. By starting the year with masks, school officials hope students will have a better shot at a safe, high-quality education.
For more on the district’s plan for face coverings (and how vaccinations could affect the mandate) see Friday's edition of the Jackson Hole Daily.