Parents at state’s largest school district debate mask mandate

CHEYENNE — More than two dozen parents offered dramatic commentary Monday night about the perceived negative effects of the mask mandate Wyoming’s largest school district has in place.

A smaller minority, however, asked to keep masks in schools.

“I represent the large population of parents and teachers in our district who disagree with a medical decision being forced on our schools (and who) want our fundamental freedom of choice back,” Heather Smith, a parent and Cheyenne-based chiropractor who has led the charge against the district’s mask mandate, told the Laramie County School District 1 Board of Trustees Monday night.

Since LCSD1, with guidance from local and state health officials, is limiting the number of people allowed to attend board meetings, Smith was the only one to make her comment in person.

“These kids were the first in masks and the last out, yet they are the least likely to be severely ill from COVID-19,” Smith said. “However, children are the most vulnerable to the collateral damage caused by how we’ve handled this pandemic, such as depression, anxiety, fear and isolation. These are precious years for our kids and experiences they’ll never get back."

Although Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon recently lifted the statewide mask mandate in other public spaces, like gyms and bars, he continued it for public schools. At least 10 of Wyoming’s 48 school districts have received exemptions, but those have largely been lightly populated districts with low COVID-19 case counts.

Laramie County, however, has seen Wyoming's highest increase in COVID-19 cases in the past week, with 76 confirmed cases. Since the start of the pandemic, the virus has killed more than 700 Wyomingites and 567,000 total Americans.

Last week, LCSD1 Superintendent Boyd Brown told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle the district, which serves nearly 14,000 students, had no plans to ask the state for an exemption, especially because wearing masks prevents large numbers of students from having to quarantine in the event that they are exposed to the virus. He reiterated that point Monday night, while also emphasizing another he’s made throughout the pandemic: He’s an education expert, which is why he’s deferred to public health experts for advice on how to contain the virus.

Kathy Emmons, executive director of the Cheyenne-Laramie County Health Department, said Monday night that it would be “highly unlikely,” given the county’s susceptibility to community spread, that the Wyoming Department of Health would approve a mask exemption for LCSD1.

Her colleague, County Health Officer Dr. Stan Hartman, said he hopes schools will reopen in the fall without a mask mandate, but that it’s best to keep it in place through the end of the year.

“The enemy is not masks, it’s the virus,” he told the board.

But throughout the pandemic, the issue of requiring face coverings – which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends in public schools – has stirred community consternation and political division from the White House to school boardrooms across the country.

Smith started an online petition – which has gained more than 1,200 signatures – urging the district to ask for an exemption to the mask mandate. She additionally called on people in the community who feel strongly about removing the mandate to make their opinions known at Monday’s school board meeting.

Although social distancing restrictions prevented others from attending the meeting in person, numerous parents and a handful of students spent an hour-and-a-half offering their virtual comment on the mask mandate.

The majority of them made arguments against keeping the mask mandate through the end of the school year, which will conclude in approximately six weeks.

Those arguments centered around concerns for damages to students’ mental health as a result of not being able to see facial expressions of their peers and teachers, as well as unsubstantiated assertions that masks do not prevent the spread of the virus.

“Requiring all children to wear masks causes mental harm,” said Melissa Earl, who is the parent of a 9-year-old daughter she removed from in-person learning this year because she “couldn’t cope mentally with wearing a mask.”

Jeremy Royer, who did not specify if he’s a parent of a child in the district, called mask mandates a form of “child abuse,” and said it’s “clearly not saving lives.” His voice quivering, Royer asked the board to “do the right thing and give these children some sense of normalcy.”

The other option, he said, “is that we have to start pulling our children from your schools – and then you have to go find jobs.”

A handful of other parents, including former Democratic state representative Sara Burlingame (who is also the director of Wyoming Equality), local Realtor Marcie Kindred and health care worker Katelyn Tenorio, all spoke in favor of keeping the mandate.

Each of them acknowledged that wearing masks is not fun or desirable, but that, in their view, it protects the broader community from the virus.

“I have seen (COVID-19) cases in all areas of the hospital. … It’s one of the ugliest illnesses I have ever taken care of patients with,” Tenorio, who has two kids enrolled in the school district, told the school board. “I don’t want masks to become the new normal. … I do see a light at the end of the tunnel, but I think it’s up to all of us to do what we can to protect the most vulnerable.”

Tenorio said that although her children might not be at high risk of becoming seriously ill with the virus, other people in the community are. “In my personal situation, my mom is the caregiver for my kids after school, and she is immunocompromised – that is who the mask mandate is protecting.”

After listening to a marathon of public comment, the board did not take any formal action Monday night.

“I appreciate that the public came out tonight to advocate on behalf of the position they took, whether for or against the mask mandate,” Trustee Christy Klaassen said. “I would very much like to see our board consider meeting on this topic, especially when thinking about the fall and going back to school next year, to discuss these issues in more depth.”