Every time we think we’ve sunk to a new low, we stop and ask ourselves “How did we let things get to this point?” Yet time and again lately, we arrive at another disappointing moment, and that same question comes back again.
Unfortunately, like one of those movie scenes of a freight train and a car barreling toward the same crossing at top speeds, the latest conflict could be seen coming a mile away. As the start of the 2021-22 school year grew ever closer, and Wyoming’s COVID-19 vaccination rate languished around 35%, you just knew a group of people would turn out to fight against mask mandates designed to slow the spread of the highly contagious delta variant.
Sure enough, that collision took place Aug. 16 at the Laramie County School District 1 Board of Trustees meeting. Unfortunately, rather than the school board and Superintendent Margaret Crespo serving as the train pushing the obstinate car out of the way, it’s as if, in this case, the car somehow totaled the train.
Because four days later, and just three days before the start of classes, Ms. Crespo sent a letter to parents outlining the district’s policy on students in kindergarten through grade 12 wearing masks. It says the only time children and youth are required to wear face coverings is on district school buses, and that’s because a federal regulation requires it. Otherwise, officials “highly recommend” students wear masks when the following social distancing cannot be maintained:
6 feet during athletics and activities. Masks will be recommended when 6-foot distance cannot be maintained, i.e., sitting on the bench with teammates.
4 feet when students are seated in the lunchroom. While in transition to and from the lunch table, masks will be recommended.
3 feet when students are in the classroom.
Staff shall social distance 6 feet.
That last one is especially baffling. So, our district’s leaders apparently believe it’s better to keep the anti-maskers happy by having teachers avoid coming within 6 feet of a struggling student’s desk than requiring masks so they can crouch next to a desk and offer help. Again, disappointing.
And disappointing doesn’t even begin to describe the feelings that arise when you think about parents who don’t like to wear masks being willing to put their child’s health – and possibly their life – at risk. Did these same parents refuse to buckle their child into a safety seat when they were an infant or toddler? Do they regularly exceed the speed limit and blow through red lights when the kids are in the car with them?
Of course, it didn’t have to be this way. Our disappointment starts with Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon, who, like many of his colleagues nationwide, has refused to demonstrate bold leadership during this crisis. Instead of taking the heat for an unpopular decision that would help save lives, he prefers to hide in his office, issuing news releases and telling reporters by phone that he has no intention of issuing any mandates related to COVID-19, even as active cases and hospitalizations continue to rise all across the state. (Of course, he wants to be reelected next year, so no one is really surprised.)
The good news is it’s not too late. Despite Mr. Gordon’s refusal to lead, city, county and school leaders in two areas areas of the state are following the science and doing what needs to be done.
The University of Wyoming was the first out of the gate by requiring everyone to wear masks indoors at least through Sept. 20. Albany County School District 1 followed suit, starting classes this week with a mask mandate in place at least through Sept. 3; Teton County’s school board voted unanimously to do the same. Albany County government leaders are requiring masks in government buildings, and Teton County issued a countywide mask mandate this past Thursday that’s effective for at least 10 days. (Care to guess which counties have the highest vaccination rates in Wyoming?)
Laramie County leaders could – and should – do the same. If we still care about the well-being of our health-care workers, who are struggling with increasing workloads amid staffing shortages, a mask mandate, both for schools and other public spaces, is the prudent thing to do.
If we care about our senior citizens, who may need booster shots that aren’t approved yet, and our front-line workers, who have to interact with unmasked customers all day long, we’ll voluntarily start wearing masks again in retail stores and other public spaces. Because what happens when day-care centers have to close due to a COVID-19 outbreak? And can some small mom-and-pop businesses survive another closure?
If we really believe, as state and local officials say they do, that keeping K-12 schools open for in-person learning is a priority, and the best thing for our kids in the long run, we’ll deal with the inconvenience of face coverings for a bit longer. And how can kids stay in school if they and their teachers are constantly having to quarantine (which is avoided if both student and teacher are masked at the time of exposure)?
And if we truly love our children, we’ll do everything in our power to keep them out of the hospital. Because no matter what you believe, you can find some “study” online to back up your position. But stop and ask yourself: What benefit do CDC officials get from advising “universal indoor masking by all students (age 2 and older), staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status”? And even if the risks are small that your unvaccinated child will have a severe case of COVID-19, is it worth rolling the dice on whether they will develop multisystem inflammatory syndrome or some other long-term impact?
It’s not too late to avoid letting disappointment turn into sorrow and regret. But we all have to do our part, and we need to do it now.