Albany County School Board approves mask mandate through Oct. 15
Despite anti-mask disruptions, the mandate passed on a 6-2 vote. The mandate was approved over the complaints of public commenters but in line with the impassioned pleas of several local scientists.
The Albany County School Board approved a mask mandate for all students in grades K-12, as well as employees and visitors.
The mandate is a controversial one, and meetings to discuss the mandate have been repeatedly disrupted by parents and audience members opposed to it. But the issue has also encouraged several medical professionals, public health experts and scientists to speak out in favor of the mandate.
The mandate passed on a 6-2 vote, with only Trustees Jamin Johnson and Jason Tangeman voting against.
Trustee Lawrence Parea, who supported the mandate, spoke of the need to have “scientific humility” — not being an expert himself, but having been tasked with providing the best education possible to the district’s children.
“There’s an unwritten expectation that the parents, guardians and caretakers of students have … that they are returned to you healthy, unharmed and safe,” he said. “This is not about masks. This is not about a cultural war. This is about me fulfilling that obligation.”
The mandate goes to mid-October, but will be revisited and reconsidered before then if one or both of a couple conditions is met:
If Albany County — currently at an “orange” transmission level — drops to yellow and stays yellow for three weeks.
If the county’s vaccination rate — currently 47 percent — hits 70 percent.
Chair Janice Marshall said her affirmative vote was inspired by the doctors and other medical experts who spoke during this and the previous meeting.
“Last week, the voices that really resonated with me were the pediatricians who are on the front line treating students, treating kids in our community with COVID,” Marshall said. “I think (the mandate) is an important part of our layered prevention.”
For others, it came down to keeping kids in schools. Board members and public commenters in favor of the mandate argued that wearing masks helps keep children in schools where they learn best.
Masks not only reduce transmission of the virus by blocking COVID-bearing aerosols, but they also reduce the number of fellow students and teachers who must quarantine following the discovery of a positive case.
“For me, it’s about keeping kids in school,” Trustee Beth Bear said. “I would hope that we can agree — based on what we’ve seen in the last year and a half — the hybrid model and the virtual model I don’t think are the best education for our kids. I don’t think it’s best for their education, for their emotional and social well-being.”
Bear cited the Wyoming Department of Health quarantine guidelines.
“As I see them, there are two factors that allow for kids to not be quarantined (after an exposure) — that’s a mask or a vaccine,” she said. “So until all of our kids have the ability to be vaccinated, that leaves us with masks.”
The decision was made Wednesday near the end of three back-to-back and highly contentious board meetings.
Each meeting drew parents opposed to the mandate; the two most recent meetings — including Wednesday’s — were each temporarily adjourned after outbursts from anti-mask protestors.
The meeting Wednesday was adjourned just minutes after it began, when some would-be commenters defied the current mandate and refused to wear masks in the boardroom. They refused to leave or even mask up, and the meeting was adjourned while order was reestablished.
When the meeting returned, public comments resumed.
The comments mirrored those offered during previous meetings and across the state.
Those against the mandate argued that parents should be allowed to choose whether their own individual children wear masks, while others made claims of tyranny, dubious allegations of unconstitutionality and offered falsehoods about the effectiveness or health impacts of masks.
Among those who spoke against the mandate was Roxie Hensley, current guardian ad litem for Albany County and former candidate for Laramie’s House District 45 seat.
Hensley framed her comments as speaking on behalf of the children she serves in her professional capacity.
“Every rational decision we make in life is a product of a risk assessment,” she said. “We weigh the relative risks of a product or action against what we will have to sacrifice to obtain it, or the prospect of the acquisition will result in an unwanted outcome. This is the sort of decision you all face tonight.”
Hensley suggested the board members were “tyrants” and said a mask mandate would be a disproportionate response to the pandemic.
Several scientists who spoke up during the meeting disagreed with Hensley and other anti-maske mandate speakers. They made an impassioned, evidence-driven case for mask mandates as a necessary layer of protection against transmission of the virus.
The scientists, many of them parents, came from a variety of fields. But several spoke to the importance of deferring to relevant experts.
“Just because a loud voice is sincere — and I know that everyone here, the loudest voices especially, have been totally sincere — does not mean they’re correct about the facts,” said Bryan Shuman, a paleoclimatologist at the University of Wyoming.
He said hyperbolic arguments and legal threats were just distractions.
“There are not two sides to the question of whether mask mandates are effective,” he said. “It is fact that mask mandates reduce COVID outbreaks — ask the American Medical Association. It’s fact that mask mandates keep kids in school, keep kids learning — ask the American Academy of Pediatrics. It’s fact that mask mandates lessen the need for parents to skip work during a child’s quarantine — ask the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Despite these facts, I recognize I could be mistaken about our risk level. But I’m also conservative. Even if we think kids are safe, I would not want to gamble our teachers’ lives given all we know.”
Patrick Kelley, a UW research scientist who runs the Behavioral Complexity Lab, highlighted the combined centuries of scientific training represented by all the scientists offering public comment.
“We would bet our jobs on our ability to read the scientific literature — which we have all done,” he said. “We understand the scientific workflow, we don’t cherry pick articles, we understand meta-analyses are the best way of dealing with things 18 months after the pandemic started. We understand this.”
Annalisa Piccorelli, a UW assistant professor with a PhD in epidemiology and biostatistics, cited a highly publicized case from California, in which an unvaccinated, occasionally unmasked teacher infected half the students in their classroom.
Those students went on to infect others outside of the classroom.
“Basically, that one teacher is at fault for 26 people getting the disease; do you want to put your kids in that position where they are putting all these other children at risk?” Piccorelli asked. “If your child’s not masked, they can infect my child just like that teacher infected half of her classroom.”
While the school board ultimately sided with the recommendations of these local scientists, others were not convinced.
Thomas Mullan took issue with what he saw as highly educated people talking down to those without advanced degrees.
“It’s disturbing to me that we have everyone up here saying ‘I’m a PhD, I’m this, I’m that, I’m smarter than you, listen to me.’ I do not appreciate that at all,” Mullan said. “Science, I thought, was supposed to be an ongoing effort to learn the truth, not opinion.”
Mullan said he also didn’t appreciate being labelled as misinformed. But he did share misinformation in the same statement, saying vaccines and masks “really don’t do any good” since those who are vaccinated and masked can still catch COVID-19.
While vaccinated individuals can indeed still catch the disease, being vaccinated greatly reduces an individual’s risk of getting COVID-19 and spreading it to others. It also nearly eliminates one’s chances of having a severe case, being hospitalized, or dying of COVID-19, should they be unlucky enough to catch a breakthrough case.
Masks are also highly effective, as demonstrated by a recent large-scale randomized study involving 340,000 individuals across 600 communities. That study has been praised by individuals in the public health field for its massive scope, and held up as compelling evidence for the effectiveness of masks.
The CDC recommends both being vaccinated and masking up in areas like Albany County experiencing high transmission rates.
Albany County’s mask mandate comes as school boards across the state — and country — grapple with the same issue, considering mask mandates as parents show out in force to protest them.
“I don’t want to go down the road of other districts and be quarantining hundreds of kids,” Trustee Bear said. “I don’t think that’s good for our kids’ education.”
Laramie County School District No. 1 also approved a mask mandate Wednesday night, reversing an earlier decision not to implement a mandate.
“All it took for them was 1000 kids in quarantine,” Trustee Nate Martin said. “I prefer to get ahead of the issue, take it seriously and see if we can snuff it out.”