LARAMIE — Another week, another school board meeting, another extension of the mask mandate in local schools.
The Albany County School District Board of Education voted 6-2 late Wednesday to extend its universal mask mandate in district facilities through Oct. 15. The rule, which would have expired Friday, applies to all students, faculty, staff and visitors in indoor settings and on buses.
Board members Jamin John- son and Jason Tangeman voted no, while Mark Bittner was absent.
This week’s meeting was derailed before it could even get going when a group of several dozen unmasked people forced their way into the district administration building shortly after the meeting began and asserted their right to attend in person. Many held poster board signs.
The board had said that only five people at a time would be allowed in the building to comment and had asked everyone else to wait outside.
As the meeting room filled up and the crowd grew more unruly, the board swiftly adjourned the meeting and called the Laramie Police Department. Following a half-hour break, during which the group promised to remain civil, the meeting resumed. A uniformed police officer remained in the room.
“Can you police yourselves?” board member Lawrence Perea asked the group during the break. “I don’t want to go through the process of having people removed.”
A woman sitting at the front of the group said they would remain under control.
“We are civil. We are orderly. We are quiet,” she said. “We will to continue to police ourselves in such a manner as to allow the speakers to proceed.”
Sarah Kahler was part of the group and said she came to the meeting in person as a show of opposition to a mask rule.
“We’re here to be a voice for the kids,” she said.
Derek Mancinho accused the board of showing preferential treatment to some speakers and expressed frustration with its handling of the public comment process.
“We want to show numbers,” he said.
Wednesday’s regular meeting of the board included a continuation of public comment on the mask rule from a special meeting held a week earlier. At that meeting, a record 83 people signed up to speak but only about half got a chance to then. The others were invited back this week to comment before the board voted.
Following another hour of public comment after the meeting had settled down, Superintendent Jubal Yennie gave the board an update on county health indicators and school attendance. Albany County is in the “Orange Zone” of COVID-19 exposure and experiencing moderate-high transmission levels, with 83 active cases and a 5.7-percent positivity rate, according to state metrics.
Meanwhile, district schools have seen 15 COVID-19 cases among students or staff since the start of the school year, with 58 people ordered to quarantine for up to two weeks by the Wyoming Department of Health as close contacts. Laramie High School accounts for four cases and 39 quarantines.
Yennie expressed frustration with the number of students ordered to stay home generally for being in the vicinity of an infected person while one or both weren’t wearing a mask.
“Quite honestly, we’re finding that a lot of these students that were quaran- tined are perfectly healthy students,” he said.
According to guidelines for K-12 schools issued by the Wyoming Department of Health, a person in close contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19 should self-monitor for symptoms if both parties were wearing masks. If one or both people weren’t wearing a mask, the close contact is required to quarantine for up to 14 days after the exposure.
The department defines close contact as being within 6 feet of a person who tests positive for COVID-19 for more than 15 minutes, starting 48 hours before the onset of symptoms.
“We have a couple tools, and those tools are what the Wyoming Department of Health gives us,” Yennie said. “We have to use those tools. We’re pushing to revise those tools with the county health officer and the state.”
The board’s decision Wednesday night was to approve an updated version of a district-wide COVID-19 mitigation plan, which includes the mask mandate. The plan suggests that the board routinely revisit the mask rule, especially if Albany County moves into the “Yellow Zone” for three straight weeks indicating moderate transmission levels, or if the county’s vaccination rate reaches 70 percent.
Albany County spent most of the summer in the “Light Green Zone,” indicating low transmission levels. The county now has a 41-percent vaccination rate, while the state as a whole is at 36 percent.
District employees are encouraged to get a vaccine and unvaccinated employees may have to undergo weekly COVID-19 testing, the plan states.
“We’ll have that conversation with folks,” Yennie said.
Tangeman introduced an amendment that would allow students to remove their masks when they are seated and socially distanced. The amendment was defeated 5-3, with board members Kim Sorenson and Johnson joining Tangeman in support.
“I really think it’s important to find some sort of mask relief,” Sorenson said.
In discussing the final vote, board member Emily Sigel Stanton said she had learned a lot from parents during the public comment sessions.
“Last week, I didn’t understand the parent-choice piece and the frustrations around that,” she said. “I really listened to families last week talk about how they want the prerogative to navigate this pandemic how they see fit.”
She said her vote in support of extending the mandate was based on a desire to keep schools open.
“Schools have always made decisions to prevent the spread of contagious diseases in school,” she said. “We’ve always been responsible for keeping the classroom envi- ronment from being a place of unchecked contagion.”
Board member Beth Bear said her vote was pragmatic, not political.
“The Wyoming Department of Health issues quarantine guidelines,” she said. “Those are not our quarantine guidelines.”
Chairwoman Janice Marshall said comments from school nurses and other health care workers resonated strongest for her.
“I think it’s an important part of our layers of prevention,” she said about using masks.
Board member Nate Martin said he would rather stay ahead of the spread of COVID-19 than fall behind and have to take reactive measures.
“It seems as though the public health benefits dramatically outweigh the costs,” he said.
Perea said his thinking on the issue was nuanced, but his bottom line was keeping kids safe. Sorenson said masks were the least-restrictive intervention possible that would allow students to remain in school.
“Many communities took their low numbers as a sign to stop the interventions that had been in place, and they blew up,” he said.
Johnson said his no vote was based on several factors, including concern about “an effective off-ramp” and disagreement that a school board is the appropriate place for such a decision to be made.
“I’m reluctant to vote for something when I don’t see a clear path to eliminate it,” he said.
Tangeman said he remained unconvinced that Albany County’s health metrics support a universal mask mandate and reiterated his position that the school board should not make that decision.
“Four cases total at LHS strikes me as very low over two weeks of school being in session,” he said.