After hours of passionate public comment and a 30-minute delay, the Albany County School District 1 Board of Education voted 6-3 late Wednesday to expand the district’s mask mandate to include all students in grades K-12 and extend through Sept. 10.
The special meeting in the Laramie High School auditorium was temporarily adjourned after about 90 minutes because of disruption from the audience as frustrated parents shouted at the board and demanded more time for in-person public comment.
Board members left LHS and reconvened at the district administration building a half-hour later, as allowed by Wyoming Statute, and continued to hear virtual comments before finally reaching their decision late in the evening.
The new rule now includes high school students and extends the mandate by a week. The board plans to continue taking public comment during its regular meeting at 7 p.m. next Wednesday and then decide whether to extend the mandate again.
Board members Jason Tangeman, Jamin Johnson and Janice Marshall voted against the new mask rule.
Board Chairman Janice Marshall said at the outset of Wednesday’s meeting that she would allow an hour for in-person public comment and an hour for virtual comments.
Those wishing to comment signed in as they entered the LHS auditorium, and Marshall said her initial assessment of the list made her optimistic that there would be enough time for everyone to speak.
Marshall urged the audience to refrain from applauding to keep things moving, but as the hour progressed the applause, whistles, boos and cheers grew louder.
After about 80 minutes of in-person comment, Marshall closed that portion of the meeting and moved to the virtual session. She said Thursday that she didn’t realize at the time that her list of speakers had a second sheet of names. Thus, she had vastly underestimated how much time would be needed for everyone to speak.
More than 30 people wanted to speak in person but weren’t able to.
“We extended the time to what I thought was the list of people, but it was not,” she said. “There was another sheet that I was not made aware of.”
Dr. Jean Allais, the Albany County public health officer, began the online discussion with a wrap-up of the county’s current COVID-19 metrics and her own recommendations. She was allowed more time than other speakers because of her position, but that decision had not been communicated to the audience.
“The flashpoint came when Dr. Allais was given some extra time,” Marshall said. “That was at (Superintendent Jubal Yennie’s) suggestion, that we give her more time to speak, which I thought was in order.”
As Dr. Allais’s discussion continued, some members of the crowd expressed their frustration at her extended time and their own lack of opportunity by shouting at the board. Marshall was unable to explain the situation or call the meeting back to order, so she adjourned it.
“We have to have civility, and we have to have order to be able to hear and to be heard,” she said. “It was very disappointing for it to end in that way.”
While the in-person meeting included a vocal anti-mask contingent, most of those who spoke online urged the board to continue the mask mandate. They argued that a mask rule would help schools stay open and protect the health of students and the community.
Others argued that wearing a mask is a personal decision that should be made by families, not the district.
Dr. Allais urged the board to implement a universal indoor mask requirement because of the prevalence of the highly transmissible delta variant, the county’s climbing infection rate and the county’s low vaccination rate.
She estimated that a vaccination rate upward of 75% would be necessary to establish community-wide immunity and suggested that a mask rule be in place until such a time, or until the county’s transmission rate falls and remains low.
“I think that would be a time to revisit universal masks in schools,” she said.
The board was set to consider required universal indoor masking for all students, staff and visitors through Oct. 15, which would be the Friday following the board’s October meeting.
However, board member Lawrence Perea suggested finding a way for everyone who wanted to speak to be able to do so before making a decision that would be in place for another six weeks.
“I believe these people need to be heard and their comments need to be taken into consideration as we move forward with this vote,” he said.
The board acknowledged that a lack of clarity about the meeting agenda likely contributed to the audience’s frustration.
“The meeting was orderly and completely civil until people felt like they couldn’t have their voices heard,” said board member Emily Sigel Stanton.
They eventually agreed to amend the motion so the mask rule would run through Sept. 10.
Everyone who wanted to speak at this week’s meeting will be invited to speak at next Wednesday’s meeting instead, after which the board will consider a longer-lasting mask mandate.
Board member Nate Martin said he empathized with everyone who was angry, but their anger was driven by unsound reasoning.
“Some of our neighbors across Wyoming and across the country have made their public-health decisions based on misinformation, and as a result they have failed in their basic charge to protect the health and safety of their children,” he said. “I refuse to follow along in that failure.”
Board member Jason Tangeman said he would continue to vote against a mask mandate because it’s a health decision that is the responsibility of the Wyoming Department of Health and not local school districts, which are directed to make policy decisions.
Plus, Tangeman said he’s not convinced a mandate is necessary based on current health information.
“Foisting this very hard decision upon us as a school board — it’s unfair and I find it a little cynical,” he said.
Marshall said her no vote was based on her opposition to a Sept. 10 expiration date. She remains in favor of masks and wants to see the rule extended longer.
“I think we need to give some predictable, consistent guidance that lasts more than five days to our community,” she said. “It needs to be something we can count on for a little while.”
Marshall said the board will develop communication guidelines for next Wednesday’s meeting and advertise those early next week.