Laramie school mask debate boils over

LARAMIE — An unruly and disruptive group of local residents nearly derailed Wednesday’s Albany County School District Board of Education meeting minutes into it. 

The group, many not wearing face masks, were there to speak about the board’s consideration of extending a mask mandate for district students and staff. The current mandate is set to expire Friday. 

But before the board could get to the public comment part of its agenda, the group had pushed its way into the room and confronted the board. 

“We are exercising our right,” a woman repeatedly exclaimed loudly as Chairwoman Janice Marshall asked to clear the room and for people to wear masks inside the building. 

“Cease your disruptions or leave,” Marshall said. “I ask those of you again to please leave who are not masked and who are not on the list to speak this evening.” 

The woman told Marshall repeatedly that “you do not have that authority” to keep the group out of the public meeting, adding that “you don’t want to bark up this tree.” 

With the disruption continuing to grow, Marshall adjourned the meeting and the Laramie Police Department was called to restore order. 

Nearly 40 minutes later, the meeting resumed after tempers had calmed and a loose truce negotiated. The group agreed to not disrupt the meeting further and was allowed to stay, including those not masked. 

From there, the board continued to hear from a record list of people who wanted to chime in on the subject of masking in schools. The 83 who signed up prior to last week’s special meeting was the most ever on a single subject, Marshall said. 

The rest of the meeting was uneventful as residents lobbied the board members to either allow the mask mandate to expire this week or extend it at least through Oct. 15. 

Finally getting on with the meeting, Mary Milstead urged the board members to stop using Albany County’s children as “experimental subjects” and drop mask rules. She said the board’s responsibility is to educate kids, not “respond to the health emergencies of the world.” 

Tim Hale said that besides being unconstitutional, “to mandate something doesn’t work.” 

Many of those speaking for and against masking urged the board to consider conflicting snippets of “science” to back up their arguments. 

Ryan Sprague has a student at Spring Creek Elementary and said he missed out of 175 days of valuable in-person education last year. 

Citing a miniscule child mortality rate from COVID-19, he said that “children are not at risk. We need to stop pretending that they are.”

Speaking via Zoom, Patrick Kelley explained that he has paid close attention to the local mask discussion and that, including himself, has counted “a minimum of about 14” Ph.D.-level scientists who have spoken on the issue. 

“I strongly support a mandate,” he said, adding that’s been the position of most of those scientists. 

Illustrating the snowball effect of the virus, Jacqueline Grimes, who works at Laramie High School, said two positive COVID cases and two other possible cases have caused another 39 students to be quarantined as close contacts. 

Under quarantine herself as a close contact, Grimes said that, in effect, “four people stole education opportunities from 39 other students.”