Sheridan, WYO — With positive COVID-19 cases holding at low levels over the last several weeks, Sheridan County’s three school districts have collaborated with Sheridan County Public Health and local health officials to request an exception to Wyoming’s K-12 mask mandate.

If the request is granted by the Wyoming Department of Health (WDH), masks would become optional for students and staff in schools across Sheridan County.

According to the Twenty-Fourth Continuation of Statewide Public Health Order #1, masks are still required in K-12 schools where six feet of distance cannot be maintained. The K-12 mask mandate has remained consistent throughout the school year across Wyoming.

In March, Wyoming State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist rolled out a process for school districts to request exceptions from statewide health orders.

To submit an exception request, counties must maintain low levels of transmission for at least a two week period, as measured by Wyoming’s official COVID-19 transmission indicators. In addition, exception requests must have support from the local school board, district superintendent, and County Health Officer.

School boards from all three districts have either approved the exception request or authorized the superintendent to formulate a request based on county-wide data.

“We have thoroughly examined numerous factors,” said Sheridan County School District No. 2 superintendent of schools Craig Dougherty. “As a team, the three superintendents worked with medical experts to dig into the data and turn over every rock in making this decision.”

“We all want the county to know that our decision was driven by science, data, and medical expertise, not by threats or inaccurate testimony to our boards,” said Dougherty.

Health officials collected input from local physicians, including pediatricians, to help school districts in the decision making process.

To reach their decision, superintendents and health officials examined numerous factors, including ongoing county-wide trends of COVID-19 cases, vaccination rates of county residents, Sheridan Memorial Hospital’s readiness to handle severe cases, and potential quarantine impacts caused by positive cases in schools.

“We are all concerned about quarantines,” said Pete Kilbride, Sheridan County School District No. 1 superintendent of schools. “When kids and staff are masked in our classrooms, they do not have to quarantine if one of them tests positive. This would change for anyone choosing not to wear a mask.”

“That said, many students are spending time together unmasked while outside of school, yet county-wide data indicates minimal numbers of positive cases,” said Kilbride.

Across the county’s schools, quarantine impacts have been low since the fall, when the Wyoming Department of Health ruled that masked students and staff were not required to quarantine if exposed to a positive case at school.

The variance request, submitted collaboratively by the county’s three districts, reserves the right for districts to require masks under certain circumstances. This could potentially include long bus rides for activities and other situations where masks could help curb transmission, as determined by school and district administration in consultation with health officials.

The exception could also be revoked by the County Health Officer or State Health Officer if transmission within the county increases, an outbreak occurs within schools, or if otherwise deemed necessary by outbreak metrics.

“We all knew the time would come, at some point, to remove masks from schools,” said Sheridan County School District No. 3 superintendent of schools Charles Auzqui. “This may be a painful moment for some folks in our communities and schools, but the data and science tell us now is the time.”

“We’ve been unwavering in our efforts to keep staff and students safe, to keep schools open, and to keep working families at work,” said Dougherty. “The vigilance has paid off, and the data tells us it’s time to make masks optional at school.”

If the request is granted by the WDH, districts will notify staff, parents, and students that masks are optional.

“The real celebration here is that all schools in Sheridan County have been open all year,” said Auzqui. “We want to thank our staff, parents, and students for their hard work. All of us are proud of the fact that our districts have continued to provide top quality education across the year, in spite of the challenges.”

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