The mask debate is heating up again, but this time, the question is, how soon is too soon for students to drop the masks?
For school districts across the state, there’s not a simple answer. But that hasn’t stopped some from requesting — and receiving — permission from the Wyoming Department of Health to abandon the masks.
Although the statewide requirement for mask use to prevent the spread of coronavirus was removed in March, public school students across Wyoming are still required to wear the face coverings.
However, some districts have won exceptions or “variances” to the requirement, such as Goshen County School District No. 1 in Torrington.
Torrington school Superintendent Ryan Kramer said his schools asked for a variance from the mask requirement because a number of parents inquired about the possibility of removing the mask mandate, which led to a public discussion of the issue at a school board meeting.
“I think it ended up being about a two-hour meeting, where we just heard from different people, and they … communicated … their views and thoughts regarding applying for a variance,” he explained.
Kramer pointed out that districts in neighboring counties, including Weston and Niobrara, had already received waivers to the order prior to the discussion in Goshen County.
After the district’s board voted 5-4 to seek the variance, the request was submitted to Goshen County’s public health office, which sent it on to Dr. Alexia Harrist, the state’s public health officer, who approved it.
Now other counties are considering the same issue.
Peg Monteith, superintendent of schools in Cody, says the district’s board will be putting the question on its agenda for next week’s board meeting.
“We are in the process of putting a survey together because we want to get public input,” she explains. “We know we are going to have people on either side of this issue who are concerned about wearing masks, and those who are concerned about not — so we want to get that feedback before the board meeting.”
Monteith said a big part of the reason the district is considering lifting the mask mandate is because of the low impact the virus has had on students in Park County in recent weeks.
“We have probably had five solid weeks of zero cases,” she said. “But neither students nor staff want to screw it up. If we can make it work and get through our culminating events — like prom and graduation and things like that — without seeing a spike in cases, I think we’re in pretty good shape.”
She added that the prevalence of vaccinated staff members also carries weight.
“We’ve had probably 60% or better of our staff fully vaccinated,” she said. “And now with that age limit going down to 16, I think you’ll see more of our students vaccinated as well.”
Harrist this week announced that for at least the next two weeks, with the exception of the schools that have already been granted variances, the mask mandate will stay in place.
In Goshen County, Kramer said there are some students and staff members who still choose to wear face coverings.
He added some safeguards from the pandemic remain in place.
“There are certain situations that we do have, like, our drinking fountains are still closed,” he said. “And we decided to still maintain our transportation schedule, because that we didn’t want to just upset things within that schedule with just 20-plus days left in the school year.”