SHERIDAN — The decision by Sheridan County School District 2 to require masks not only has some residents upset but withdrawing their children from district schools, and has reportedly led to the suspension of at least two teachers who chose to defy the policy change.
The SCSD2 Board of Trustees at a special meeting Monday, the day prior to the start of the 2021-22 school year, unanimously approved a recommendation requiring students, staff and visitors wear protective masks inside all school and district buildings, as well as on buses. The vote came after district officials conferred with county health officials about the recent rise in local COVID-19 cases.
Concerned residents packed the board room and adjacent hallways for a chance to voice their concerns over the mask requirement, though public input was limited to six individuals each who were either for or against the recommendation.
Nancy Stephens, one of those who addressed the board Monday, said her frustration over the board’s action led her and her husband to decide to pull their two youngest daughters from attending SCSD2 schools.
“I oppose the school district taking parent’s rights away,” Stephens said. “The health care decisions for our children should be ours to make. Each family should be able to carefully weigh the risks and benefits of masking their children.
“If a family decides they would rather have their children wear masks, great. If a family decides they do not want to send their children in a mask, great,” she added. “This should be up to each family to decide.”
Stephens now plans to homeschool her two youngest daughters, with a third already having been enrolled in a local private school.
“Should the private school require masks, we will pull her as well,” Stephens said. “There is a great home-school community that has welcomed those of us who withdrew our children with open arms.”
Though, she added the family hasn’t ruled out their children returning to SCSD2 schools, if the opportunity presents itself.
“I would love to have our daughters in the district schools again. We love the staff and teachers at Meadowlark (Elementary School),” Stephens said. “Our children’s education is very important to us. This was not an easy decision to make, but it is one that we knew was the right decision for our kids.
“I know that these decisions are hard to make. I do respect our elected officials and recognize this is a challenging time for all of us. No matter what you decide there will be criticism,” she added. “(But) at the end of the day, we had to draw a line in the sand and say that enough is enough.”
For Dani Brinkerhoff, it wasn’t necessarily the board’s decision but the timing and the inflexibility of the policy that caused her to pull her kindergartner from going to a public school.
Brinkerhoff said she had told her youngster during the summer she wouldn’t have to wear a mask. Upon hearing of the board’s vote, she provided her child with a highly decorated mask to help make her more comfortable wearing one.
“But when we got into the school (Tuesday), they said it wasn’t compliant,” Brinkerhoff said. “It was hard for my daughter. She was already nervous.
“We were trying to do it, but we weren’t going to force her,” she added. “As a kindergartner for her first experience at school, good luck on her coming back.”
Like Stephens, Brinkerhoff quickly made the decision to home-school her daughter, adding it seemed school officials were more focused on the mask requirement than education.
“There was no wiggle room,” Brinkerhoff said. “This isn’t why we go to school, to focus on wearing a mask.”
According to Stephens, the two families aren’t alone in pulling their children from local schools because of the board’s decision.
“I know at least five to seven other families who made the same decision to pull their kids out,” Stephens said. “There are countless other families who are unhappy about how all of this played out and the timing of it all. They feel unheard, stuck and left with no other choice but to send their children masked.”
They weren’t the only ones defying the mask requirement, as two teachers confirmed they were placed on administrative leave Tuesday for refusing to wear a mask.
On his personal Facebook page, Joe Smith posted that his wife, Amanda Smith, a teacher at Henry A. Coffeen Elementary School, was informed by SCSD2 Superintendent Scott Stults she would not be allowed to enter the school Tuesday morning for the district’s first day of class without a mask.
“My wife, a phenomenal teacher for the past eight years, has been placed on suspension and will be terminated for standing up for, not only her own rights, but the rights of her students,” he stated in the post. “She is not alone in her efforts, but there are not enough stepping up and stopping this.
“I would rather change our lifestyle than have a school board be dictators to the way we raise our children,” he added. “If you’re not infuriated, you’re part of the problem.”
When asked about the suspensions, Stults said he was unable to comment on matters pertaining to confidential personnel records.
“As you know, the school district’s COVID-19 plan does require that face coverings be worn inside school district buildings due to the high level of community spread in Sheridan, thus resulting in our need to keep our students and staff safe,” he said. “We expect all staff to follow the COVID-19 plan.”
Mitch Craft, SCSD2 assistant superintendent for instruction and assessment, did confirm Tuesday that several families had contacted district officials about the process to withdraw students following the announcement of the masking requirement.
“Providing a number is not possible at this point, since these requests usually run through school administrative assistants,” Craft said. “Each year, enrollment numbers settle on day 11 of the school year, as the state of Wyoming requires districts to drop students who have not attended at the end of day 10. By that time, we should have a clear idea of our enrollment for the beginning of the year, excluding any students who have left for home-school or virtual programs.”
Sheridan County School District 1 Superintendent Pete Kilbride also confirmed he’s received comments from parents about the possible withdrawal of their students. SCSD1 kicked off its school year Aug. 23 with masks recommended but optional.
“I have had a couple state they will withdraw or seek alternatives,” Kilbride said. “We offer a virtual program that is offered as an option to those that wish to not send students and last year, nearly 50 students took advantage of that, with many returning to school at semester for in-class learning.”
Despite the controversy over the board’s last-minute decision and the potential loss of students, Craft said the district celebrated a “great first day of school” Tuesday.
“There was tremendous excitement from our students as they arrived at their respective schools, as well as from our teachers, principals and staff members,” Craft said. “We are absolutely thrilled that our students are now back in our schools and are ready for a great school year.
“There were no significant issues with students refusing to wear masks,” he added. “There was some frustration expressed by high school students, but staff members were able to talk with most of these students and help them see that choosing to be in school is the better option.”
SCSD2 is not alone in facing a decision on whether to require masks. The Sheridan County School District 1 board is set to hold a special meeting Wednesday at 6 p.m. in Ranchester to review and discuss its COVID-19 policy, while Sheridan County School District 3 officials will do the same at their board of trustees regular meeting Sept. 8.
Kilbride said he’s recently received a number of emails, both for and against the district enacting a mask requirement.
“We have tried to be upfront about things, so we have not had a lot of correspondence, but I know feelings are strong on both sides,” Kilbride told The Sheridan Press Tuesday. “This is a difficult situation to navigate, especially when it’s left to individual districts.
“The Sheridan County metrics and our current absences due to quarantines make it difficult to not take any action,” he added. “I fear doing nothing will lead us to a school closure, or at least multiple people absent every week due to quarantines.
“This means lost teaching and learning, lost activities and lost connections to one another. It’s hard on students, teachers, administrators and parents. Nobody is left unaffected, and it’s putting a strain on everyone,” Kilbride said.