PINEDALE – Community members spoke out at its April meeting against the Sublette County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees’ March 11 vote to defy state public health orders mandating masks in schools when social distancing is not possible.
The trustees voted, 4-2, to pass a motion in March eliminating school SMART Start Plans and replacing them with the minimum guidelines set out by the state. The motion made an exception for public health orders on masks in schools and lifted those requirements for students and staff in the district.
Gov. Mark Gordon lifted the statewide mask mandate on March 16. Statewide Order No. 1, modified on March 16, requires students, teachers and school staff to wear masks or face coverings when social distancing cannot be maintained. The orders remain in effect through April 30.
The board did not seek a variance with local or state public health officials and its decision to end enforcement of masks in district schools was a violation of Statewide Order No. 1.
Dr. Brendan Fitzsimmons, Sublette County public health officer, verified to the Roundup that the board of trustees did not consult with him or Public Health on the matter. Public Health scheduled a meeting for the Tuesday after Spring Break with the superintendent, school administrators, school nurses and other district staff to discuss modifications to existing public health restrictions, Fitzsimmons added.
The trustees’ actions on March 11 made the meeting a moot point, Fitzsimmons stated.
School board chairman Jamison Ziegler brought up the idea of pursuing a variance with local and state health authorities at the March 11 meeting. The board did not take any action on the suggestion.
Meghann Smith spoke during the public comment period of the trustees’ April 8 meeting. Smith emphasized that schools teach students discipline and respect for rules and the chain of command.
The trustees’ actions to defy state health orders, including a refusal to go through the established process to seek a variance, set a negative precedence for students, Smith added.
“How can we expect kids to show respect to their teachers in class when our own school board is being disrespectful to the state as well as those in the community who may not agree with them?” she said. “This could have been an excellent way to lead by example, follow the rules and work through the system to see change you want. The school board, in my opinion, should have demonstrated how to work with those above you, even if you disagree with them.”
Smith stated that she felt the board did not properly communicate that there would be a discussion on a contentious subject like lifting the mask mandate. From her point of view, the agenda item appeared to only include discussion on Pinedale Elementary and spring athletic and activities SMART Start Plans.
Smith understood that new ideas can arise during meetings, but said the trustees’ decision to vote on the item was “underhanded and not transparent.”
Michelle Humber criticized the way the board handled the decision and called the trustees out for not going through the proper channels to seek a variance. Humber was concerned that the decision was made one day before Spring Break, and parents received notice that Sunday. The short notice left families with children on individualized education programs (IEPs), or those with vulnerable immune systems, scrambling to arrange new plans at schools.
District superintendent Jay Harnack was also not able to attend the meeting and contribute to the conversation, Humber added.
During the board’s discussion on March 11, there were no medical experts, epidemiologists or public health officials with scientific knowledge on COVID-19 to provide knowledge and expertise, Humber said.
Humber stated that COVID-19 was a serious and deadly disease, not something to be taken lightly. Cases in Sublette County rose sharply following Spring Break, she said.
The Wyoming Department of Health confirmed 22 active cases of COVID-19 in Sublette County on April 14, up from four active cases in the county reported by the agency on March 9.
Humber was impressed by the district’s efforts to follow public health orders and keep schools open during a year when many schools remained closed across the country. She was disappointed that the district was not willing to stay the course for the remainder of the year.
Humber and Smith encouraged the trustees to improve efforts to let the public know when they will hold discussions on controversial topics affecting a community’s safety and wellbeing or table the item.
Ziegler thanked the public for their comments and the board moved onto its next agenda item.