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Pinedale school officials vote to ignore mask mandate
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Pinedale school officials vote to ignore mask mandate

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PINEDALE – The Sublette County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees passed a motion eliminating school SMART Start Plans and replacing them with the minimum guidelines set out by state public health orders.

The motion made an exception for public health orders on masks in schools and lifted those requirements for students and staff in the district.

The vote was 4-2, with chairman Jamison Ziegler and trustees Clayton Olson, Marie McGuire and Stacy Illoway voting in favor. Trustees Chris Nelson and Rachel Weksler voted against the motion with Charles Prior absent.

Gov. Mark Gordon lifted the statewide mask mandate on March 16.

Statewide Order No. 1, modified on March 16, requires students, teachers and school staff to wear masks or face coverings when social distancing by 6 feet is not possible.

Gordon stated in a March 8 press release that masks were justified in K-12 schools as a safety precaution to keep facilities open and allow activities and sports to continue.

The board’s decision to no longer enforce the use of masks in district schools is a violation of Statewide Order No. 1.

Doug Mason, the district’s attorney, told the board that he did not know what the legal consequences for the district would be, but added that he was not aware of any cases where the state retaliated against local agencies for noncompliance with state orders.

State Superintendent Jillian Balow addressed concerns about lifting mask restrictions statewide, except in schools, in a statement clarifying what the changes to the state health orders meant for schools, said Linda Finnerty, Wyoming Department of Education communications director.

“Superintendent Balow then worked directly with both the Governor’s office and the State Health Officer to ensure that communities and school districts maintain the flexibility and authority they need to discuss the issue – this has been a mainstay commitment during COVID19,” Finnerty added. “The superintendent also communicated with the Wyoming Association of School Administrators to seek input from local districts.”

The public health orders did not originate from the state superintendent and WDE, and enforcement would be determined by law enforcement or the county attorney, Finnerty explained.

Ziegler said the board had received significant public backlash against continuing the mask mandate in the district after March 16.

McGuire said that placing a demand on students to wear masks after the governor lifted the mandate for the wider community was illogical and frustrating. During the surge in COVID-19 cases in Sublette County last fall, schools did not appear to be high-risk areas for transmission, McGuire added. She cited significantly lower numbers of COVID19 cases in the county in recent weeks.

McGuire explained that as a mother, she would never tell her children to do anything without backing her decision up with a logical reason.

Illoway stated that he disagreed with a mask mandate in schools after March 16. The district needed to take a stand against orders that no longer made sense, Illoway said.

McGuire asked for feedback from administrators on enforcing the mask mandate.

Pinedale High School Principal Brian Brisko said that enforcing mask requirements was a growing battle for administrators and teachers. He added that the schools were willing to continue the fight, but said that students were increasingly vocal in their opposition and refusal to follow the mask mandate following the governor’s announcement to lift restrictions. Students frequently took their masks off the minute they left school grounds to socialize with friends without maintaining proper social distancing, Brisko added.

Pinedale Middle School Principal Eric Makelky explained that staff and faculty were worn down trying to enforce the mask rules and spent an increasing amount of time badgering students. Students’ growing belligerence reflected broader public sentiment in the community, he added.

Greg Legerski, principal at Pinedale Elementary School, told the board that his school had fewer problems requiring young students to follow rules on masks.

Weksler encouraged the trustees to stay the course. She said schools in Sublette County were fortunate to remain open all year, and she saw no reason to go against state health orders when the district was so close to the end of the school year. Weksler cautioned the board against changing health mandates as families travel for spring break.

Weksler added that students were only required to wear masks when social distancing was not possible and did not need to wear them all day. She said that low transmission rates at schools could be attributed to following guidelines like wearing masks and social distancing. Weksler encouraged the board to look beyond Sublette County at the wider pandemic still raging in other communities.

PES teacher Keri Hecht explained that some teachers and staff, particularly those in high-risk health categories, might be uncomfortable returning to work without a mask mandate in place. She was thankful that schools remained open all year, and encouraged the board not to put schools in jeopardy of closing.

PES Assistant Principal and BOCES Director Janel Scurlock said that she was uncomfortable with the precedent the board was setting by defying state orders. Refusing to follow guidelines was contradictory to the message schools taught students, she added.

Nelson stated that while he felt conflicted about the issue and understood the public’s frustration, the board needed to set an example for following rules to prevent chaos. He cautioned that defying state orders sent the message to students that rule breaking was OK.

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