Albany County school board gets an earful on mask mandates

LARAMIE — Wednesday’s special meeting of the Albany County School District 1 Board of Education to listen to public input on a potential extended mask mandate for students and employees soon found a rhythm reminiscent of a State of the Union address. 

Vigorous and passionate applause followed every speaker from both sides of the debate. 

The school board members hadn’t taken a vote as of press time, but they got an earful from vocal residents urging them to either not renew or extend and expand its mask mandate for K-8 schools, which was set to expire after Friday. 

Many argued that requiring kids to wear masks in class is an overstep of school board authority and undermines the ability of parents to make healthcare decisions for their children. 

Thomas Mullen drew applause when he said he felt compelled to speak out and “stop this tyranny of outside forces now trying to come in (to the community). Parents should have the right to decide for their children, not someone else.” 

He suggested that if the elected board members continue and/or expand a mask mandate in Albany County schools that they give families the per pupil stipend the state pays the district “and we’ll pay our own teachers.” 

Dan Bleak echoed Mullen’s concerns, saying he “strongly disagrees” with the policy. 

He said that instead of considering a more permanent masking requirement, school administrators need to work on how to mitigate the “damage” mask wearing has already done to kids over the past week. 

While there was a strong anti-mask contingent at the meeting, held in the auditorium at Laramie High School, the local medical community also turned out to advocate for wearing masks as one of the effective ways people have to help curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

Dr. Kent Kleppinger said he didn’t want to “throw a lot of statistics at you,” but one in 14 people in Wyoming is COVID-19 positive, and the numbers are taking an alarming surge with the more contagious delta variant.

“The rate has doubled in the last two weeks, and it’s tripled in the last five,” he said. “One-third of new cases are children … and the hospitals are full.”

Jackie Grimes said she works at the high school and not only supports the mandate, she would like to see it expanded to include grades 9-12.

“Keeping schools open is the top priority,” she said.

With students attending seven classes a day with an average of 30 in a class, each student has at least 210 potential exposures per day not including moving through the halls. 

Considering that, “Would you want to go sit in the middle of a high school class unmasked?” she asked. 

The youngest to speak to the board in person was a 9-year-old Indian Paintbrush Elementary School student, who said wearing a face mask isn’t stressful or much of an inconvenience. 

“I am happy to wear a mask,” he said, adding that his grandfather is a cancer survivor and he wants to look out for him and others vulnerable to the virus. “I think you can make sure everyone wears a mask. Isn’t it your job to make sure (school) is a safe place?” 

Katrina Cox said that when kids can’t see their teachers’ faces they lose an important part of their education because “facial expressions are super important in learning.” 

As a daycare provider with four children of her own, April Bateman said forcing mask wearing is the same as bullying kids and that “children cannot learn in an atmosphere of fear … and masks promote fear.” 

Sometimes the overall public health concern has to drive policy, said Jason Alexander. While some parents argue mask wearing for their kids is their choice, they’re obligated by laws and regulations every day similar to a mask mandate, he said. 

For example, the law mandates children wear seat belts and/or be in appropriate safety seats while in a moving car, Alexander said.