Masks made optional in Jackson schools

JACKSON — For the first time in nearly two years, masks are now optional in Teton County School District No. 1.

Masking is still recommended by school and health officials, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but it is no longer a requirement, after school board votes on Nov. 10 and Jan. 1.

For some, the lifting of the mandate is cause for New Year’s celebration. It mirrors the countywide mandate expiration and seems to suggest a return to normalcy after a pandemic that has lasted longer than anyone expected.

But others fear the policies are changing at the worst possible time.

“COVID is going to spread like wildfire,” said Danielle Shapiro, the mother of a Jackson kindergartener. She spoke at the school board’s Saturday night special meeting on masking requirements.

“It hasn’t so far, mostly because they’ve been in masks,” she said. “The other mitigation strategies are extremely helpful, but they’re not enough.”

COVID-19 cases, likely fueled by the highly infectious omicron variant, are currently racing through Teton County. The Health Department has seen 400 to 500-percent increases in weekly cases. Staff contact tracers are overwhelmed. And local children ages 5 to 11, still newly eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, are only 40-percent vaccinated. Meanwhile, middle schoolers, who may have waning, six-month-old vaccines, are not yet eligible for boosters.

Trustees Kate Mead, Alan Brumsted and Jennifer Zung voted in favor of a new mandate on Jan. 1, while Chairman Keith Gingery, Janine Teske and Betsy Carlin opposed it. Bill Scarlett did not attend.

Over Webex, Superintendent Gillian Chapman shared updates from Teton District Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell and Public Health Director Jodie Pond. She described the new five-day quarantine recommendation from the CDC and celebrated the schools’ few quarantines in the fall, without noting that masks were required for that period.

As she described the 400 to 500-percent surge in COVID cases over the holiday break, Chapman noted that those cases were primarily among young adults — ages 20 to 27 — not among children.

“School-age children,” she said, “are underrepresented in the data.”

Chapman didn’t clarify that students had been on break and therefore were not in classrooms during the surge.

She also said St. John’s Health is not seeing a surge in hospitalizations.

“It was described as relatively quiet at the hospital,” she said, not specifying who described it as such.

St. John’s Chief Communications Officer Karen Connelly told the Jackson Hole Daily that employee quarantines have already made it “very challenging to ensure all service areas and clinics can stay open.”

On Dec. 29, for instance, 18 St. John’s employees were out on quarantine.

With rapid tests for students with symptoms and a new test-to-stay model, Chapman indicated the district has plenty of tools in its toolbelt without requiring masks. But she stopped short of making a recommendation one way or the other.

The only real concern the superintendent shared was that staffing might be a problem if teachers need to quarantine, even for the shorter five-day period. The district has 45 registered substitutes but only 20 consistently subbing, said communications director Charlotte Reynolds.

Trustees Kate Mead and Alan Brumsted called the special meeting in response to the swell of COVID-19 in the community.

Mead proposed extending a mask requirement through Jan. 12, the board’s next regular meeting, as a way to keep kids in school and prevent staff quarantines.

“We all know employers that are struggling to keep the doors open,” Mead told the board. “Look at the airlines.”

Then Mead responded to the superintendent’s report.

“St. John’s hospital is quiet because they have so many staff members out with COVID,” she said. “My mutual friend ... was doing surgery ’til nine o’clock at night this week because there weren’t people to clean up the surgical suites.”

Connelly wasn’t able to confirm that specific account but said she “wouldn’t be surprised.”

“It’s taking a real team effort right now to keep things open for all emergency and elective needs,” she said.

Health care workers are still required to quarantine for seven days, not the five days the CDC advised for the general public. ”

Brumsted, for his part, said continuing to require masks would allow the district to “see what happens” with this new surge rather than putting 800 people in close proximity with less protection.

On the flip side, Trustee Janine Teske said the board lacked medical expertise and should defer to state and county health officers as they’ve done previously.

“It just doesn’t feel right for me to vote to override what our county health officer is suggesting,” she said, alluding to Riddell’s decision not to implement a new countywide mandate. Masking is still recommended in indoor spaces, regardless of vaccination status.

Teske also commented about St. John’s.

“Kate, you can’t say that the hospitals are quiet because the staff is out,” she said. “The hospitals are quiet because they don’t have patients.”

Noticeably absent from the discourse was direct guidance from Riddell or a hospital representative. The health officer told the Daily on Friday he would be willing to comment if the board asked him to. At the time, he didn’t have a recommendation for schools on either side of the mask mandate decision.

Instead, the board heard more than an hour of public comment from parents, nurses, teachers and a few students with split views on the situation.

Longtime opponents of the mask mandate like Shelby Scharp said it was “offending” to ignore their pleas.

“The county is saying it’s a go. The kids are healthy. And my child for 18 months has been looking forward to going to school without a mask,” Sharp said, before threatening to homeschool her child on Monday if masks were required.

Lisa Stephens and her husband, Eric, both Jackson nurses, are also hoping for a day when their 5-year-old will be able to attend school without a mask.

“But it seems clear to us that now is not the time,” they said. “We should wait just a little bit longer in light of this recent, very significant increase in COVID cases.”

Stephens also said St. John’s urgent care has been slammed with COVID cases and super busy, not the relative “quiet” Chapman described.

Several commenters described deleterious impacts of mask wearing, from mental health to denying natural immunity.

“This special meeting should not be about masks, it should be how to plan mitigation programs and interventions for the mental health of those kids that have been masked and isolated for two years,” said Jessica Aufderheide. “They’ve been surrounded by fear and have been prevented from interacting with their classmates.”

The first teacher to speak, Briana Olivares, said a new mask requirement would help her feel safe at work, especially as so many of her friends or family members are infected by the current surge.

“I’ve worked really hard trying not to get COVID, and it’s really sad to me that I’ll have a higher chance just by going to my job,” she said.

Others were anxious quarantines would disrupt students’ learning and parents’ jobs.

Some parents like Shapiro and Aida Farag said they feel unsafe sending their kids to a partially masked classroom without their booster shots, which have been difficult to schedule.

One immunocompromised student spoke in favor of a mask optional policy, while a high schooler said universal masking is an effective, necessary tool to keep school in-person.

Two fifth grade brothers spoke toward the end of the meeting in favor of masking, which they said helps them feel safe.

During the trustees’ discussion, Brumsted restated the imperative to keep children in school. Mead underscored that booking vaccinations isn’t easy, and Carlin said she hopes the majority of people continue to wear masks in schools, regardless of the board’s decision.

Ultimately for Carlin, likely the deciding vote on the board, her misgivings about issuing another mask mandate came from Riddell’s relative silence.

“I am not a health expert,” she said. “I have to turn to experts to help me make my decisions.”

Teske echoed the sentiment: “If Dr. Riddell had suggested that this was the right thing to do, I would suggest we should move forward [with a mandate].”