CHEYENNE — In response to nearly 10 percent of students in Laramie County School District 2 being quarantined after the first week of school, as well as nine staff members, the district's Board of Trustees held a special meeting Monday night that lasted more than three hours.
New Superintendent Justin Pierantoni asked for a change in protocols and welcomed Kathy Emmons, executive director of the Cheyenne-Laramie County Health Department, and Dr. Stan Hartman, the county's health officer, to answer any questions or concerns for the board.
All three were met with skepticism.
Pierantoni addressed students, parents and teachers present at the beginning of the meeting, saying he didn’t expect to be back in front of the board so soon after the original protocol conversation in early August.
“I’ve set two goals when it comes to setting up our return-to-school plans,” he said. “The first one is to provide a safe environment for all students to participate, and then the second is to use multiple strategies and approaches to maintain student and staff attendance.”
For the 2021-22 school year, LCSD2 made no requirements for masks, not even a minimum requirement on buses, like in LCSD1. Social distancing, recommended mask usage and sanitation were all part of the plan – but now Pierantoni is asking for reconsideration.
He said he is calling for “strategic masking.”
This would require students to wear masks on the bus, which was the source of 33 student quarantines last week in LCSD2, as well as on Mondays and Tuesdays after students return from the weekend. On longer breaks, like the upcoming Labor Day weekend, students would have to wear masks for the entire four-day school week.
He said it would give them the time to get over the incubation period, have COVID-19 tests come back over the weekend and put fewer students at risk due to unknowing spread.
“I’d like the board to entertain and hopefully discuss the idea of using masking not as a punishment, but more as a proactive strategy that’s in our tool belt,” he said.
He told the board that 50 out of the 99 students in quarantine would not be out of school for 10 days if strategic masking had been in place.
Pierantoni said this request for a masking protocol does come with one goal in mind – to end it. He told the board that if they approved a strategic masking protocol, it would be rescinded after the school district managed two weeks without any infections or quarantines.
Board members asked him where the two-week marker came from, and Pierantoni said since the standard quarantine period is two weeks, it would help him feel they had run the course of a possible exposure.
The final point made by Pierantoni during the special school board meeting was concerning the topic of transparency and “not having a secret.”
He said there is no way to have an open conversation with parents and students on how to make a decision for the district if the data isn’t out there. He asked the board to have a weekly dashboard updated with COVID-19 numbers for the community in order for them to have a better picture of the current state of the district.
And he also wants to know which number, if seen on a dashboard and published, will instigate a change in protocols.
“If you saw that 30 percent of the school was out because of quarantine,” he said, “is that something that says to you that we need to do a wholesale change – we need to do something different in the immediate or long term to address that?”
Pierantoni was not given an answer publicly. Instead, he and the health officials were met with a series of questions, which included:
Contact tracing received the most attention out of all aspects of the conversations.
And in an interaction between Emmons and Trustee Dave Keiter, the board member received applause from parents and students in the crowd. He asked her if LCSD2 could be a test bed for no contact tracing in schools, and informed her that he didn’t believe parents in eastern Laramie County were ready to mask their children.
“I think they are prepared to have sick kids,” he said.
Emmons made it clear, though, that regardless of whether they wanted contact tracing or to require masks, the health department would still have to monitor cases. This is required by law under Wyoming Statute 35, which requires health officials to be responsible for ensuring that quarantining and isolation is done.
“I’m not a legislator,” she said. “I don’t make the rules. I just try not to go to jail.”
Trustee Billie Wilson asked if this was a legal issue, which laws have precedence in response to public health legislation and requirements. She cited the Wyoming Constitution, which gives parents and legal guardians the liberty to make medical choices for their children.
Dr. Hartman said this has been a legal debate for more than a century. And in preparation, he spoke with Mark Faust, the county attorney, about the boundaries within legislation and law to impose personal restrictions (like masking, contact tracing, etc.) during the pandemic.
He said these restrictions were legal in the interest of the health of the entire community, which take precedence over individual rights.
Other examples of restrictions for public health that Hartman mentioned were speed limits and the fact that you can no longer smoke openly in restaurants. Unlike those restrictions, he said these were going to only be temporary and not a permanent change to the law.
“This will go away as soon as we no longer have the current state of emergency,” he said.
More questions like this were answered, even with pushback from Board of Trustees members. And other questions, like when this will end, could not be.
Once Pierantoni, Emmons and Hartman were finished making their case for stricter health protocols in LCSD2, parents, students and teachers had a time to respond. It was a response similar to that of the school board meeting two weeks ago in Cheyenne.
Twenty-three community members stepped forward to address the board. Four asked for a mask mandate to be put in place. Those who rejected the strategic masking plan had more than just words to say – some had presentations.
One mother wore a shirt that said, “Home is where the herd is.”
A father brought in his oxygen reader for construction sites and put the wand reader underneath his mask. He said that the legal safety requirement in buildings is an oxygen level of 20.9. After six seconds, the machine beeped and read off a level of 17.7. He said that his child would suffer from oxygen deficiency.
Another parent accused Emmons of possibly reporting the wrong numbers, and asked the crowd gathered inside Burns High School, “Are they skewed to scare you?”
After nearly three hours of listening to these questions and concerns, the trustees went into an executive session and returned 45 minutes later with no answers or new protocols. Members of the board said it was a meeting designed to listen to the community and their opinions, but on action item 5.1 of the agenda, there was a section listed to adjust COVID-19 protocols.
School board members thanked the families for their time before they left the building at almost 10:30 p.m.