School board takes no action on masks
Masks remain “strongly recommended” but optional as Albany County schools continue in-person instruction. The board did not schedule discussion of COVID policy ahead of its most recent meeting.
COVID-19 protocols were not on the school board’s agenda this week, but they did earn about 20 minutes of discussion when public commenters and a school board trustee pushed the issue.
The Albany County School Board met Wednesday to discuss a number of topics — among them, scheduling to fill their vacancy and receiving an update on the new Slade Elementary.
Cynthia Weinig, a University of Wyoming professor, spoke during the public comment period to say she was surprised not to see COVID-19 protocols on the board’s agenda
“I was concerned by this because cases are at their highest levels across the United States,” she said. “I’m curious what the board’s planning is for this. I’m sure we all want to keep kids in school — that definitely seems to be an outcome everyone wants to achieve, both for the learning outcomes and the psychological, mental health benefits of being in school.”
Weinig praised the board’s earlier action in the fall of 2021 to implement and maintain mask requirements.
“After a pattern of rising case counts, it would certainly make sense to reinstate them,” she said.
Originally, the board said it would end the mandate if and when the county saw low transmission levels or a vaccination rate of at least 70 percent. Neither of these ever happened, but the board still voted to end the mandate in December.
Trustees cited the widespread availability of vaccines for children aged 5-11 as justification for ending the mandate, but commenter Amy Fluet said she was bewildered by the change in course.
“Your vote in December threw out that framework and left us as parents to second guess why the decision was made — despite a low vaccination rate in our county, especially among children aged 5-11 years old, in the presence of a new and highly transmissible variant of SARS-CoV-2 on the horizon,” Fluet said. “What’s clear is that the current situation is not working and we are in danger of having to once again move to online education.”
The board even heard from a Laramie High School student. Paul Steinke has been intensely interested in the mask mandate issue, helping to form the group Families for Healthy Communities. That group has intervened in the “Grace Smith” anti-mask lawsuit, from which Albany County Schools were recently dismissed.
Steinke told the board it was “irresponsible” for them to have lifted the mask requirement, adding that he was now paying the price — missing out on academic and extracurricular activities because teachers and coaches were having to stay home.
“This is not really being paid attention to as much as it should,” he said. “If our schools are caring more about the outrage and politics than the safety of actual students then we can’t have a healthy school district.”
Martin raises the issue
Immediately following the public comments, the board adjourned to an hour-long executive session. But when they returned, Trustee Nate Martin pushed the issue.
“A number of people from our community have noted what they perceive as a glaring omission — discussion of where we’re at in the pandemic and what we’re doing to keep schools open,” he said.
Superintendent Jubal Yennie responded, giving an informal update on the state of the pandemic in Albany County Schools. Yennie is currently running a survey, to which some 300 staff have so far responded. He said there is a near 50-50 split between those who feel safe under the current COVID-19 protocols and those who do not.
Yennie added that he is taking guidance from health authorities like State Health Officer Alexia Harrist and Albany County Health Officer Jean Allais.
“We work with our medical authorities on making decisions for the operation of schools,” Yennie said. “(And) we are looking at attendance very carefully. It is currently, as of last week, still hovering at about 90 percent. Staff attendance, probably about 85 percent. That hasn’t changed in three or four years. I met with principals yesterday. They said, yes, the substitutes are difficult, but we’ve been able to manage.”
Trustee Martin pointed out that staffing levels could change quickly, and that the superintendent’s own briefing noted that the district is not able to project staffing levels two weeks out.
“That’s concerning, but I understand that we’ve been kind of in that position awhile,” Martin said.
Yennie said he was also concerned.
“That’s the reason I had principals meet,” Yennie said. “The principals disabused me of that ‘sky is falling’ notion.”
Martin said he was also concerned about the anticipated acceleration of omicron’s spread through the community. Albany County now has more active cases than it has had at any point since the pandemic began. UW announced last week that they are shifting from a strategy of “containment” to “management” as the virus inevitably spreads across campus. This week, administrators said the campus community was in for a “very difficult, challenging three or four weeks.”
“We’re about to have the university students come back in two weeks and the university, I understand, has just kind of thrown up its hands,” Martin said. “So, all indications are we might be trending, at least in terms of infections, toward a situation in which we won’t be able to keep schools open. So I’d be interested to hear from Dr. Allais — recognizing that masks are an effective preventative strategy that helps us keep schools open — why she wouldn’t recommend (a mandate).”
Martin cast the sole dissenting vote when the board ended the mask mandate in December.
“Now that we understand this thing goes in waves, and if we voted to rescind the mask mandate while we were in an apparent trough and soon after we had the next wave come on, it seems like we might be nimble enough to try to get in front of these waves with the simple procedure of masking,” he said. “I’d be interested to hear from other members of the board if there’s a willingness to do that, or if we’ve altogether abandoned the idea of having people wear masks.”
But there might be no appetite to institute another mandate — or to once again enter the fray on an issue that has animated raucous crowds, shut down board meetings and inspired a conspiracy-laden lawsuit.
Sorenson doubts the future of mask mandates
Trustee Kim Sorenson answered Trustee Martin.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever come across an issue in my entire life where I’ve gone back and forth as much as I have on this one,” Sorenson said.
The trustee spoke about his family’s personal journey through the pandemic, the amount of reading and thought demanded by medical decisions, and the social impact the mask mandate had on the community.
“One of the things I hated doing as a principal was having students removed from the building or kicked out, suspended, expelled, whatever,” Sorenson said. “Everything we’re doing says we want kids in school, but if you come to school without a mask, we’ll kick you out. So, we’re creating an environment where we’re creating criminals. And we can say it’s because they chose not to follow a thing, but we’re the ones saying, ‘If you don’t do this, you’re out.’ I’m having more and more trouble with that.”
Sorenson said asking teachers to reverse course by reimplementing a mask mandate would be putting them in a tight spot. He said being a good teacher does not mean one is a good enforcer of mandates.
“They have no training in it, many of them don’t want to do it, many of them are afraid to do it,” Sorenson said. “Our school district has suffered through this, not only because of the illness but because of all the things that we were forced to do. I think we would be putting our staff in a position I would not envy anyone — trying to mandate masks on the present information that we have at this time — after giving them two weeks to three weeks to mingle and be without masks.”
This was, in fact, one of the considerations behind UW’s decision to keep its mask mandate, which it voted to maintain until at least February. University student and faculty leadership expressed a desire for consistency and said it would be difficult to reestablish a mask mandate once it had been removed.
Sorenson said he would probably vote for a new mask mandate if his colleagues on the school board supported one. But at this point, he said, asking teachers to enforce a new mandate would be “unpopular.”
“I think we’re all going to pay the consequences of it for years to come,” Sorenson said. “I’m a proponent of masks; I think masks have served their purpose. But I think we’ve gone a month in this community without them and I just think it would be an extremely difficult and highly unpopular mandate to make at this time.”
Superintendent Yennie said about 50-60 percent of students and about 60-70 percent of teachers are wearing masks.
“Teachers can make that simple request and it will be complied with 98 percent of the time,” he said. “The classrooms or situations where teachers have asked students to wear masks — they’re complying. That’s where we need to get to as we work through this — that personal responsibility.”
Trustee Lawrence Perea called a point of order, asking the board to move past this discussion, as the COVID-19 policy was not on the agenda and the trustees had “gotten off course.”
Chair Janice Marshall agreed.
“This will be an ongoing conversation,” she said.