JACKSON, Wyo. — The decision to mandate masks for Teton County School District students and staff won’t be made until just before the school year starts, much to the chagrin of parents who attended the school board meeting Wednesday night.
A meeting is tentatively scheduled for Aug. 25. The choice will be made amid, or possibly on the tail end of, a spike in new COVID-19 cases in the county. Superintendent Gillian Chapman said she was hopeful that cases would decline by the start of the school year.
“I’m an optimist. I sincerely hope the data change over the next couple of weeks,” Chapman said. “This particular strand [Delta] does move through the community rather quickly. Hopefully it’s at the worst and the best is on the horizon.”
Masks are currently recommended indoors by both the Teton County Health Department and the Center for Disease Control as the more highly-transmissible Delta variant remains a concern. Not requiring masks in schools, long-time board member Betsy Carlin clarified, would mean a more complicated quarantine procedure for kids and staff who are exposed to the virus.
“My understanding is that if masks were to be required, there are different quarantining rules as opposed to having masks optional,” Carlin said.
Chapman confirmed that the district is taking a “layered approach” to quarantining and that the “disruption of quarantine is greatly reduced if people are wearing masks.” She ran through several hypothetical scenarios to highlight who would have to quarantine under which conditions.
“The length of your quarantine varies if you’re vaccinated and/or masked,” she said. “[The protocol are] as clear as mud.”
The district is not requiring but is “strongly encouraging” eligible people to be vaccinated, and children under 12 can not yet receive the vaccine.
Carlin agreed with postponing the decision but said she wants the decision to ensure more time for students in classrooms.
“[The past 18 months] have not been the most optimal learning times,” Carlin said. “I want to make sure we are going into this year really focused on academics and how to keep kids in classrooms as much as possible.”
A school district in Florida placed more than 400 students in quarantine just two days into the school year this week amid a spike in cases among students and families. The district requires masks, but an order from Gov. Rob DeSantis allows families to opt-out. District Superintendent Michael Burke told MSNBC that 5,700 Palm Beach students have opted out, and blamed the opt-out option for the spike.
Public comment at the Aug. 11 meeting was largely opposed to a mask requirement. Several parents threatened to pull their kids from the district if a mandate were enacted, and were upset the district’s decision would not leave them enough time to make that decision.
“Masks need to go or we will be pulling all our kids and we will be homeschooling,” said Jamie Young, a third-generation local from Moran who said she was speaking for “many mothers.”
Reasons for opposing a mask mandate ranged from personal freedoms to health concerns. Several parents argued the risk of COVID-19 is not big enough for children to have to worry about wearing a mask all day. The Delta variant is more transmissible in children, especially because children under 12 are unvaccinated, the CDC has said. Child hospitalizations are the highest they have been all pandemic.
Two individuals spoke up in favor of a mask mandate. Libby Crews Wood, a fifth-grade teacher at Munger Mountain Elementary School, said that masks were “freeing” and allowed her to interact more closely with her students. She contracted COVID last year, she said and credits mask-wearing to the fact that none of her students or colleagues got sick.
“Masking is cheap, it’s easy, the children did a beautiful job and the adults did a beautiful job,” Crews Wood said. “I truly believe it’s a common sense way to handle an illness that is really easy to catch.”
Masks will be required this year on all school buses in both public and private school systems, as part of the federal mandate requiring operators and passengers on all public transportation to wear masks.