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From left, Ryker Hager, 15, Emily Woods, 15, and Joey Barto, 15, wear their masks while waiting together after school Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021, at South High School. The Laramie County School District 1 Board of Trustees voted Monday night to remove the mask mandate in local schools. Rhianna Gelhart/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – The Laramie County School District 1 Board of Trustees was met with loud applause and a standing ovation following its 4-3 vote to remove the mask mandate for students and faculty, as well as lessen quarantine restrictions.

Many of those celebrating Monday night were parents, community members and local politicians who have regularly attended school board meetings since the district required masks in September, requesting the board reverse their previous decision.

“We are the majority,” Marky Moody told trustees. “We’re 65% to 70% here in Laramie County, growing stronger every day. We don’t want the masks anymore. They are going against the Constitution, and also against your constituents.”

Although they have continually shared their concerns and asked for a protocol update, LCSD1 Superintendent Margaret Crespo did not confirm this as the reason for the addendum to the Smart Start plan for the district. She said the decision was made in consultation with the Cheyenne-Laramie County Health Department, and followed new guidelines provided by the Wyoming Department of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Additionally, she said there were now prevention options not previously available, such as vaccines being readily available for children ages 5 and up, and boosters for those age 12 and older.

Trustees Christy Klaassen, Alicia Smith, Tim Bolin and Brittany Ashby made the final decision with their vote approving the changes (Marguerite Herman, Rose Ann Million Rinne and Rich Wiederspahn were opposed). And they were supported not only by many residents of Cheyenne, but the Wyoming GOP.

The state Republican Party sent out an official statement Monday and relayed the message of Darin Smith, husband of LCSD1 Trustee Alicia Smith, and a past Republican candidate for Congress, asking for parents to make their voices heard. Darin Smith has continually attended meetings, questioning the validity of the board’s mask requirement.

“The Wyoming GOP stands behind efforts like these to follow science and stop masking our children,” the statement read. “Most Wyoming school districts stopped requiring masks long ago. What is wrong in Laramie County School District 1 that they have not?”

Darin Smith’s addition to the statement gave ways to reach school board officials and participate in the public comment. He said we need to “pack that room full with pro-freedom and pro-child advocates.” There is no way to discern which side an attendee was on the issue, however, as the board room was packed significantly enough to need the overflow room.

Community members filled the entire hour-long public comment section with testimony prior to the vote, and only three supported the mask mandate staying in place.

One of those was Amanda Shay-Brookhart, a teacher in the district, who asked trustees to consider the impacts it would have on faculty safety. She said with the elimination of contact tracing and mask mandates, the board was putting lives at risk. Emphasis was also given to the fact many teachers were not given paid time off after testing positive.

“I have staff in my building that are at a high risk if they catch COVID, and I personally have a spouse that is about to have a massive surgery,” she said. “And while a lot of us are not afraid of COVID, we do have people in our lives, in our schools and our staff, that are amazing individuals, who are putting their life on the line for our kids.”

Shay-Brookhart said protecting those individuals, as well as the students, was important.

This was a sentiment shared by Herman, who had said although the masks were not perfect, they did help minimize transmission to those who were at higher risk. She said she has received emails from stakeholders with sick husbands and children unable to get vaccinated who wanted some assurance of safety in a public space they have to go into.

Although all the trustees expressed concern for the health and protection of those in the community, Smith and Klaassen said it may be time to start living with the virus.

“For those types of examples you gave, there will be no scenario in which COVID will be safe for them,” Klaassen told her fellow trustee.

She said in order to protect those individuals who want to mingle among the rest of the population, masks would never be able to be removed because of the risk. This was an outcome she told trustees she did not want to consider before the final vote.

“COVID is here,” she said. “It’s a part of our world now. And, unfortunately, we have to make the best of different situations.”

Other trustees did not agree, and Wiederspahn said he was especially concerned after the report given by District Nurse Janet Farmer. As of Monday, there were 70 new cases of COVID-19 reported in the district, 10 of those being staff. The week before, there were 100 new cases – 80 students and 20 staff. She said this followed along the lines of the spike seen by city and county health officials.

“Laramie County has just been upgraded to severe risk on the COVID scale, the highest risk level that there is,” Wiederspahn said. “Our primary responsibility, and my primary responsibility, I believe, is to keep kids in school. I’m not convinced that if we remove the mask mandate that that’s going to happen.”

He was in the minority, along with Herman and board chair Rinne, who voted no to the amendment in protocol. The Smart Start plan will continue to be reviewed if new circumstances develop, but the district is moving forward with the board’s decision.

Students and faculty are still required to wear masks until Friday, Jan. 21, with an official announcement to be made on the update to the policy the same day. The following Monday, masks will only be highly recommended, with other health protocols, such as staying home, social distancing and washing hands frequently, encouraged.

Although this was the largest request from parents in the community heard during Monday’s meeting, it isn’t the most immediate change going into effect.

Effective immediately, individuals who have been exposed to COVID-19 will not be quarantined from school unless they are displaying symptoms. Symptomatic individuals will immediately be sent home and may not return to LCSD1 property until they have been fever-free for 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medication.

Students and faculty who test positive will only have to stay home for five days, however, and may return to school or work on the condition they wear a mask for five more days.

COVID-positive individuals will also be required to contact those they have been in close contact with. Masks are recommended for 10 days, with testing on day five. The district will take additional steps if there is a need to quarantine a classroom, grade or school due to high transmission rate.

Farmer said school nurses and the principal have been responsible for contact tracing and navigating quarantine requirements, but the new system for tracking individuals who need to wear a mask following a positive test has not been confirmed yet. Teachers will need to be informed when a student returns.

“I don’t know,” she said in response to Herman’s inquiry before the vote. “Until we actually start the process, I’m not exactly sure how it will work.”

The CDC currently recommends that exposed and asymptomatic individuals submit a daily COVID-19 test, but the district does not have the resources to provide this option. Officials stated they will attempt to provide as much support as possible.

“I would like nothing better than to have our kids out of masks and be able to go to school every day and have our numbers continue to go down,” Wiederspahn said.

Jasmine Hall is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s education reporter. She can be reached by email at jhall@wyomingnews.com or by phone at 307-633-3167. Follow her on Twitter @jasminerhphotos and on Instagram @jhrose25.

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