The Albany County School District #1 Board of Trustees convened for its October meeting Wednesday night in the wake of a mask showdown that caught the attention of news outlets around the country and left the Laramie High School community on edge.
On Sept. 8, the board approved by a 6-2 vote a COVID-19 operation plan that included a universal mask mandate for all district facilities. The mandate is scheduled to expire Friday, necessitating that the board review it this week.
The board limited public comment during Wednesday’s virtual meeting to 15 people, although only 13 signed up to speak, each of whom were given three 3 minutes to express their opinions.
Before taking public input, Superintendent Jubal Yennie read a letter to the community expressing concern that the COVID-19 pandemic continues to bring out “the worst in us.”
“The COVID-19 pandemic has damaged our compassion for one another,” he said. “We want this pandemic to be over with as little loss of life as possible.”
The debate over wearing face masks and other public health measures has divided Albany County, Yennie said.
“Half are unhappy and the other half comforted,” he said, adding that school employees are also people. “COVID-19 has created a no-win situation. We are your friends, neighbors and family members. ... This pandemic has brought out the very worst in us.”
In calling for more understanding and compassion, Yennie said that “when hurting others we are also hurting ourselves.”
The board was still meeting and hadn’t voted on extending the mask mandate through Dec. 17, which was to expire Friday, at press time. But during the public comment, delivered via Zoom videoconferencing, the trustees were lobbied by some to maintain the mandate and others to lift it.
Last week, 16-year-old Grace Smith was arrested for trespassing and removed from school grounds in handcuffs after showing up for class Thursday morning and refusing to comply with the district’s mask rule. She had already served two consecutive two-day suspensions. The school was put under a lockdown for more than an hour during the ordeal.
The next day, a social media threat, which was discredited by law enforcement, again left the high school community on high alert.
The district acknowledged Smith’s arrest with a short statement describing a “student disciplinary disturbance” that resulted in a “brief lockdown.” District officials declined to comment further.
Meanwhile, Smith’s story was picked up by national news outlets, including Fox News and The New York Post. Videos of Smith’s arrest have collected thousands of views on YouTube, and an online fundraiser for Smith’s legal costs has reached almost $100,000.
Wednesday evening, Smith was the last to speak to the board and used the opportunity to tell the members about how she’s been treated since refusing to wear a mask. She also said she is withdrawing as a student at Laramie High School.
“This should’ve been a respected decision,” she said about not masking up. “But instead I was arrested. I have striven to act with the utmost respect (and) ... I was unlawfully arrested from my own school.”
Dan Bleak also urged the school board to let the mask mandate drop, saying there’s very little difference between Wyoming school districts where it’s optional and mandatory.
For every plea to end the mandate was one to keep it.
Bryan Schuman said that he’s “glad to send my kids to school wearing a mask,” and that it’s the responsible thing to do as long as the pandemic continues to roil through the community.
“Unfortunately, we still have a high COVID caseload and our hospitals are overloaded,” he said, adding that wearing a mask is “a very reasonable compromise as a way to go forward.”
Christina Lewis said that while she supports a mask mandate, she was “disappointed” with how the situation with Smith was handled, especially a lack of communication with parents.
Another resident, Cynthia Weinig, said that she’s “concerned not only about the fact that we’re in a pandemic with COVID-19, but a pandemic of partisanship and politics.
“I agree with the mask mandate in particular in that it’s something that protects our community.”
Implementation of the initial mask rule was preceded by a series of contentious meetings during which dozens of parents and local residents spoke for and against a rule. The in-person portion of a Sept. 1 meeting was adjourned following an angry outburst from audience members who didn’t get to speak.
During the Sept. 8 meeting, a couple dozen people defied the board’s restriction on attending in person and sat through the meeting without masks on.
The board will consider changing the mask rule when the county has been in the “Yellow Zone” for three weeks, indicating moderate COVID-19 transmission, or when its vaccination rate reaches 70%.
According to the Wyoming Department of Health, Albany County was in the “Red Zone” as of Oct. 6, indicating high transmission. The county’s vaccination rate was 49.3% as of Monday.