Virus FILE Masks

CHEYENNE – The Wyoming Department of Health has denied Laramie County School District 2’s request for an exemption to the state’s continued mask mandate in K-12 schools.

The rural eastern Laramie County district, which serves roughly 1,050 students in grades K-12, applied for the exemption a couple weeks ago and received notice that it was denied earlier this week. According to the district’s website, it counted two active cases of COVID-19 and 12 individuals in quarantine as of Tuesday afternoon.

Laramie County, as a whole, is experiencing some of the highest case numbers in Wyoming, recording 102 active COVID-19 cases as of Thursday afternoon. Although Gov. Mark Gordon recently lifted the statewide mask mandate for most other public spaces, including gyms and bars, face coverings are still required in schools when social distancing is not possible. Students and staff who are wearing masks if and when they are exposed to an infected individual do not have to quarantine.

To date, the state health department has granted exemptions to 20 of Wyoming’s 48 total school districts, and all of those are in areas with low case counts.

Every district granted an exemption fell into the department’s so-called green zones, which means it encompasses an area with fewer than 19 cases per 100,000 people. Laramie County, however, does not fall into the green zone.

Laramie County School District 1, Wyoming largest district, has already said it will not seek an exemption to the mask mandate.

The health department has denied mask exemption requests for two districts – Laramie County School District 2 and Uinta County School District 1. In those districts, health officials concluded that the number of active COVID-19 cases remained too high for an exemption.

“When reviewing exception requests and requests for less restrictive variance orders at the county level, we base those decisions based on county measures of transmission levels,” Dr. Alexia Harrist, state health officer, wrote in a memo to the LCSD2 Board of Trustees explaining the decision. “Currently, the metrics indicate that Laramie County is experiencing moderate-high levels of transmission (orange zone) with low percent test positivity, indicating that overall Laramie County is continuing to experience moderate transmission levels (yellow zone).”

Kathy Emmons, executive director of the Cheyenne-Laramie County Health Department, said she wasn’t surprised by the state’s decision to deny LCSD2’s exemption request, especially because the state evaluates them on a county level.

“In all reality, we’re so mobile. I know there’s a lot of parents who work in Cheyenne who live out in the county. We’ve got kids going back and forth. … It’s not like there’s a big wall,“ Emmons said. She added that, in her view as a public health official, keeping the mask requirement in place will help students and staff in Laramie County “get through the rest of the school year with as few disruptions as possible.”

After the state denied LCSD2’s exemption request, the school board held a special meeting earlier this week and proposed a motion that would “no longer enforce the wearing of masks by our administration, staff, students or visitors while in the buildings or on the property of” the district. The motion also proposed that health care professionals employed by the district would “not be required to participate in the additional duties of completing any type of contact tracing or the quarantining of cases” and to leave “these duties and decisions to the individual/family” within the district.

The board voted to deny the motion, however.

Julianne Randall, chair of the school board, said that means all of the restrictions LCSD2 has had in place throughout the year, including requiring face masks, will likely remain in place until school lets out for summer.

“There’s a chance, I suppose, if in the next week we all of the sudden have absolutely no positive cases in our district we could request another waiver,” Randall said. “The only way a waiver is going to be granted is if our county is in the green zone. And that’s probably not going to happen in the next month.”

Kathryn Palmer is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s education reporter. She can be reached at kpalmer@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3167. Follow her on Twitter at @kathrynbpalmer.

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