With surveys showing overwhelming support from parents and staff, the Park County School District 1 Board of Trustees voted Tuesday to seek an exception to public health rules and stop requiring …
With surveys showing overwhelming support from parents and staff, the Park County School District 1 Board of Trustees voted Tuesday to seek an exception to public health rules and stop requiring masks in district buildings.
Surveys conducted by the school district indicated 86% of the staff was in favor of a mask variance as were 87% of parents who responded, while only 10% opposed the variance.
Superintendent Jay Curtis recommended to the board that it ask for the variance. He defended the mask use earlier in the year because the schools are bound to follow health orders.
“We did what it took to keep the doors open,” Curtis said. “I’m proud of what we did, but I also agree it’s time to be done.”
Three parents or grandparents addressed the board on Tuesday. Each spoke in support of seeking a mask variance.
Troy Bray said his student had been sent to in-school suspension for not wearing a mask.
“Kids should get COVID so they can get herd immunity,” Bray said, adding, “It’s stupid. You guys should be ashamed of yourselves.”
Bray has been an outspoken critic of the public health orders related to the pandemic, saying at a March meeting of the Park County Republican Party that some “power-hungry” health officers “need to be fired — or executed.”
Carrie Peters also asked the board to request a variance for mask-wearing, though in milder terms.
“It’s time for this to be done,” she said. “You were faced with an incredibly difficult situation and did an amazing job. We appreciate that. But it’s insane to keep making the kids wear masks when the whole state is wide open.”
Peters’ mother, Becky French, also supported the variance, but her concerns were based on health of the children — both how their physical health was affected by reduced oxygen flow and what wearing a mask was doing to their mental health.
Park County Health Officer Dr. Aaron Billin says studies have shown mask wearing is effective in limiting the spread of disease.
“Masks can cause discomfort and communications problems, however there is no scientific evidence of significant physiologic decompensation with mask use,” Billin said Sunday. “I have found no scientific research on the psychological effects of masks and we only have anecdote at this point.”
However, Billin supported the Cody school district’s request for a mask variance which was approved last week, saying everything is a balance between personal freedom and risk. Curtis said his understanding was that Billin would sign off on the Powell district’s variance request and send it on to State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist.
The county’s metrics have been in the so-called “green zone” for five weeks, three more than required and there were only eight active cases of COVID in the county on Tuesday, according to a conversation Curtis had with Billin earlier in the day.
However, Curtis warned that if there is a spike in cases in either the county or the schools, the county health officer will revoke the variance. He also said the audience at the upcoming graduation will be required to wear masks.
“If we are going to pack them in like sardines, we need to do that,” Curtis said. The PHS gym holds around 2,000 spectators, but it’s unclear whether the 50% capacity rule will be in effect for graduation, cutting the audience to about 1,000.
Curtis said the schools would still promote social distancing and focus on hand hygiene. The frequent admonitions to wash hands often had yielded unintended benefits.
“We’ve had lowered levels of all illnesses,” Curtis said. “Flu has been nonexistent, colds have been nonexistent and COVID has been nonexistent for the most part.”
Trustee Laura Riley expressed some concerns about a variance, though.
“Are we able to accommodate staff and teachers who are uncomfortable in a mask-free environment?” she wondered.
Curtis said anyone who wanted to continue to wear a mask would be fully supported in that decision; that there would be no tolerance for ostracizing those who do mask up; and that there will be additional personal protective equipment available for any staff member who wants it.
“There will be people on both sides and their opinions deserve respect,” said board chair Trace Paul.
When it came time to cast votes, the board voted 6-1 to seek a variance, with Riley the lone dissent.
(CJ Baker contributed reporting.)