Laramie students protest Albany Co. mask mandate

LARAMIE — Cheering back as a chorus of honking horns sounded support, about two dozen Laramie High School students protested Friday afternoon at the southwest corner of Boulder Drive and Grand Avenue.

Their gripe?

Mandatory mask wearing in school, same as many of their parents have expressed over the past couple of weeks to the Albany County School District 1 Board of Education.

Saying he was kicked out 20 minutes into his first-period math class that morning because he wouldn’t wear a face mask in compliance with school district policy was 15-year-old freshman Ryle Hamilton.

“It’s just wrong to make someone wear a mask, to make health decisions for them instead of letting them decide for themselves,” Hamilton said.

He and the other students were reacting this week’s school board decision to extend a mask mandate for all grade levels through at least Oct. 15.

The debate leading up to the extension boiled over Wednesday evening when a group of unmasked parents and residents pushed their way into the school board chambers and disrupted the meeting. After a short recess and an added presence from the Laramie Police Department, the meeting calmed down enough to finish up hours of public comment on the issue.

Like many of their parents, Friday’s student protesters said they feel the school board overstepped its authority. Most held large signs with messages to the board.

“Educate no mandate,” read one.

Another declared that, “I have the right to not mask.”

“Medical freedom is crucial,” exclaims another banner, while yet another urges the school board to “do your job.”

Grace Smith, a 16-year-old junior, said she organized the protest and walkout that saw about 70-80 students leave class at 10 a.m.

“We’ve had masks long enough,” she said, adding that the high school administration and staff has so far been inconsistent in enforcing the district’s public health rules.

Although a few passing motorists threw things at the students and yelled curses, the protesters didn’t react other than to cheer whenever someone honked.

If they wondered whether the school board members were aware of their position, the answer is yes, said board chairwoman Janice Marshall.

In fact, Marshall said that, at a basic level, she agrees with the students and dozens of residents and parents who spoke out against the policy the past couple of weeks.

“I don’t want to wear a mask either,” she said.

But the board couldn’t make a decision based on their personal preferences without taking into account the health and safety of students, Marshall said.

“I want to keep you safe and I want you to keep me safe,” she said. “If I got what I wanted, it would be for COVID to go away. But that’s not reality, so we have to do what we can to limit the spread.”

LHS Principal Jeff Lewis couldn’t be reached by press time, but Superintendent Jubal Yennie said the students who walked out or protested won’t face any extra discipline for voicing their opinions.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences for leaving class.

“The students who left the building and were not in class are obviously unexcused and their parents were called,” Yennie said.

He also said he was pleased to hear that, for the most part, the students were well-behaved and respectful during their protest.

At the end of the day, “We have 95 percent to 98 percent of the students and teachers there working on education,” he said.

Kim Sorenson was one of the board members to vote in favor of a mask mandate and also was the longtime principal at Laramie High School before his retirement. He said he’s been surprised and dismayed at times by how divisive the pandemic public health measures have become.

“All we ever wanted to do is find the least intrusive preventative measure that would benefit everyone,” he said. “It seemed masks were the answer. I don’t regret that decision at all, but I wish we were more able to express what we were trying to do.”

When the pandemic has finally run its course, Sorenson said his wish is that all sides can claim moral, political, emotional or whatever type of victory is important to them.

“I hope we all can sit around a year from how and say, ‘See? I was right,’” he said. “We probably will never really know, so everyone will be able to claim victory.”

Marshall said the emotion behind people’s passion has made the debate more difficult, but also shows how personal it’s become for many.

“It’s too bad it’s such a divisive issue, such a cultural and divisive issue, which is not what it’s about at all,” she said.

For the students, Smith said she also reached out to Gov. Mark Gordon asking him to intervene on behalf of school district families and staff. She said she echoed one of the points made many times during the school board’s consideration of the policy: that the board doesn’t have authority to make public health mandates.

Maddie Swope agrees, saying that’s why she joined the protest. Although now a college student herself, Swope said she has two brothers who attend LHS.

“They’re going to mandate the mask, then the vaccine,” she said. “But ultimately, it should be up to the parents.”

Another thing Marshall and the students have in common is an appeal to Wyoming’s governor.

Marshall said she sent a letter to Gordon on Thursday seeking his support for school boards across the state that are having to make these decisions in the face of no overriding state mandates.

She said he called her Friday and said that, unequivocally, “you do have the statutory authority to make a mandate in the district."

Gordon also said he is directing the state Attorney General’s Office to draft a document to make that clear for school districts across the state.

For now, Smith said unless something changes, she plans to continue the protest Monday.

That’s her right, said Yennie. But that doesn’t mean students who participate and miss classes will be excused.

“We honor the First Amendment here too,” he said, adding that part of free speech is accepting the consequences that come with it.