CASPER — More than 100 parents and students protested the Natrona County School District’s mask requirement Monday night, despite the board of trustees’ announcement Saturday it would request an exemption to the K-12 mandate.
Meanwhile, the district declined to answer questions from reporters before its meeting about the change in course.
A week earlier, the trustees had voted against that action.
“A lot of the parents felt it was to toss us a bone to try to get us not to show up tonight,” said Jamie Bates, a district parent and organizer of a Facebook group leading the protest efforts.
Bates added she thought the district’s decision was a fair compromise, but agreed with other parents that trustees should expedite the process to request the exception from state officials.
The protest was twofold. In addition to the demonstration Monday evening at the board meeting, students protested Monday by not wearing masks or not attending school at all, Bates said. Parents have been keeping track with a Facebook group of how many students did not attend school today in protest. Bates said it was close to 500.
Just two state public health orders remain as COVID-19 infections have plummeted and vaccinations have become widely available. One order requires masks in educational facilities, like K-12 schools and college campuses.
Parents have lobbied district trustees for weeks to make face masks optional after state officials began granting exceptions to that rule for small districts in counties with low transmission levels.
As of Monday, 15 school districts in Wyoming had been approved by the state to lift their mask requirement, Department of Health spokesperson Kim Deti said. The majority of districts serve fewer than 2,000 students. One district — Sheridan 2 — serves about 3,500 students. In comparison, Natrona County School District serves 13,000 students.
One district has a request pending. One district, Laramie 2, had a request denied.
Natrona County trustees voted against asking for such an exception at a special meeting April 19. Soon after, parents began organizing a demonstration for the following board of trustees meeting Monday to protest that decision.
But now, the board has seemingly changed direction.
“The Natrona County School District Board of Trustees and the Superintendent have developed a path forward that will result in a variance request to the Statewide Public Health Order #1 (face covering order) in K-12 schools and facilities on May 10, 2021,” a release issued Saturday by the district reads. “This will allow staff time to develop and implement plans for students and staff who have concerns regarding the removal of the statewide face covering order.”
It is unclear how the decision was reached. The district’s announcement does not provide details of any meeting or conversation between superintendent Mike Jennings and the elected trustees following the April 19 meeting.
District spokesperson Tanya Southerland declined an interview with the Star-Tribune, referring a reporter instead to Casper attorney Craig Silva, who has represented the district in the past. Silva declined to answer questions about school board procedures and then hung up.
Trustees were set to meet at 6 p.m. Monday for a work session and at 7 p.m. for a regular meeting.
Trustees debated whether to pursue a mask exception request in a meeting April 12. They decided to survey parents and staff, and planned to make a decision at a special meeting the following week.
The survey results overwhelmingly favored requesting the state exception, with more than 80 percent of parents and more than 70 percent of staff supporting the move. But about 200 families reported that if masks became optional, they may have to withdraw their student from the district.
Local health officials testified at that meeting, too, asking that the district keep face masks for the remainder of the school year.
With roughly one month of school left, trustees spent the special meeting April 19 debating whether the majority attitude should jeopardize the minority.
Ultimately, trustees voted 5-4 not to pursue lifting the mask order.
“It’s as important to protect the minority as it is to honor the voice of the majority, and I am as concerned for those teachers and students who are afraid to attend school if the mandate is lifted as I am for those who are frustrated by the mandate,” Trustee Clark Jensen said at the time.
The district’s weekend announcement alluded to plans to honor the wishes of both groups, though specifics on those plans were not provided.