TORRINGTON – Tuesday night, March 30, the Goshen County School District board met for a special meeting and work session in the high school auditorium. During the meeting, the GCSD board approved having County Health Officer Dr. Ted Church apply to the state for a variance of the statewide mask mandate for schools.
The mask variance agenda item prompted a high turnout of parents, community members and students. The board considered approving applying for a face coverings variance for the remainder of the school year after hearing arguments from the public for and against a variance.
The board voted 5-4 in favor of the mask variance.
The roll-call vote began with Board Chairman Mark Jespersen. Jespersen and Board Members Matthew Cushman, Dylan Hager, Taylor Schmick and Michael Sussex voted in favor of applying for a variance. Board Vice-Chair Zachary Miller, Board Clerk Kerry Bullington, Board Treasurer Carlos Saudedo, and Board Member Katherine Patrick voted against the application.
The motion passed, but Jespersen reminded the public this would not go into effect until the variance is approved by the Goshen County Health Officer, Church, and the Wyoming State Health Officer, Dr. Alexia Harrist.
Superintendent Ryan Kramer said he and Jespersen added the agenda item after getting several requests to consider applying for a variance.
The meeting was called to order, the pledge of allegiance was recited and the agenda was adjusted and approved.
The public forum began with Jespersen informing the public of the expectations. Each person who indicated they wanted to speak was allowed five minutes at the podium.
A total of 15 individuals and groups addressed the board. With only one speaking against the variance, most speakers were in favor of it.
Six students spoke at the podium, voicing their concerns about mandatory masking in school.
Beth Keller of the Cowboy Clinic said she wanted to provide on objective view of what she has noticed at the clinic. She said out of 260 people tested, ages four to 19, the clinic had seen 36 positive tests.
“Whatever the outcome, we will be here for the community and help the community through this pandemic,” Keller said.
Students had the opportunity to speak with or without their parents. Three high school students addressed the board together, saying they want the option of whether or not to wear a mask for eight hours of the day.
Arguments in support of the variance centered around personal choice, vaccine distribution and the lifting of restrictions outside of the K-12 setting.
One attendee, Danielle Murphy noted that districts in Weston County, Niobrara County and Platte County have approved or have pending variances. She also mentioned that Sublette County lifted restrictions without a variance by discontinuing their Smart Start Plan.
Arguments against applying for a variance focused on quarantine requirements without masking, the potential for events being cancelled and the possibility of parents pulling their kids out of school.
After public forum, the board considered and unanimously approved offering a 2021-2022 teaching contract to Baxter Heinert as a special education teacher at Torrington High School.
Cushman moved to apply for a variance regarding the face coverings requirement in the district for the remainder of the school year. Sussex seconded the motion.
Following this, the board engaged in discussion for about 45 minutes, with a few interruptions from audience members.
Jespersen said he was in favor of leaving the decision to government and health officials. Hager later echoed this point.
One thing that had not come up enough, according to Jespersen, is the number of people who have to quarantine when there is a positive case.
Jespersen asked Dr. Church and Heather Saul of Goshen County Public Health about potential quarantines. Saul said if the variance is approved, the quarantine guidelines remain the same. People within six feet of a positive case for more than 15 minutes will need to quarantine, Saul said. With masks, this was not necessary in K-12 school settings, according to the Wyoming Department of Health.
Kramer voiced his concern of quarantines drastically affecting school events like prom and graduation.
“We have had one day this entire school year where we haven’t had a student in quarantine,” he said.
Kramer also said parents of students with medical concerns may have to determine whether or not it is safe for their students to continue attending in-person school. He said his best guess is that this issue could affect 30 to 40 students.
After the motion was passed, applause and cheering erupted from the auditorium.
“Let’s be supportive of each other and let’s do what we can, for our kids, to make sure we finish out the school year strong,” Jespersen said.
After the approval of applying for a mask variance, most of the crowd filed out of the auditorium.
Later, the board approved the eliminating of COVID-19 Emergency Paid Sick Leave (EPSL) and Emergency Family and Medical Leave Act (EFMLA) to district employees after March 31. A reason for this was reduced federal funding. The vote was 8-1 on this item.
Much of the following work session discussed House Bill 173 and its potential implications.
“Thank you for what you do,” Jespersen concluded to the board.
“We make tough decisions, and we have to represent people that don’t always agree with each other and we do that to the best of our abilities.”