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Driggs Elementary students wear masks (and animal costumes) during a performance in April of 2021. The school board is again weighing whether masks should be required in public school.

With the new academic year looming, the Teton School District 401 Board of Trustees faced the same conundrum it saw at the end of last school year: should masks be required in school or not?

Covid case numbers have surged in the past weeks. According to the Eastern Idaho Public Health dashboard, there are currently nine active cases in Teton County, the most the area has seen since April. The Centers for Disease Control has recommended universal mask wearing for K-12 students and staff, and some school districts like Boise have opted for mask mandates.

During the board’s regular meeting on Aug. 9, Superintendent Monte Woolstenhulme gave his recommendation: stick with the amended reopening plan, which was narrowly approved by the board in June. He said that rather than requiring masks, the district’s goal, based on guidelines from Teton Valley Health and EIPH, was to encourage vaccinations for those who are eligible, educate the district on testing opportunities, and perform contract tracing through EIPH when necessary, as well as the usual advice: practice good hygiene and stay home when sick.

The board received almost 20 emails from community members asking them to reinstate masks per the CDC’s recommendation; only a few people sent emails asking for no masks.

Board chair Ben Kearsley was absent on Monday so the members were evenly split in their views. Alexie Hulme and Jake Kunz were opposed to altering the status quo, which they said seemed to have worked in May when the board voted to make masks optional. Meanwhile, Shannon Brooks Hamby and Ticia Sheets asked for a more conservative and proactive approach to public health in the face of the more contagious delta variant. 

Hulme and Kunz both noted that they had not supported the 21-22 plan in June because it left open the possibility of mask requirements at higher risk levels, but they both said they’ve come around to it.

“We have to understand that this is a fluid situation, and I think as a board we should stay fluid,” Kunz said. “If something crops up, we’re here. We’ll take care of it.”

Emotions ran high as Sheets and Hulme pleaded their opposing cases. Sheets said she didn’t want the board to make a decision that might land a student or teacher in the hospital, while Hulme preached personal responsibility.

“Everyone needs to chill out, stop pointing fingers about who’s wearing a mask and who’s vaccinated, and let families make these decisions for themselves,” Hulme said tearfully.

At an impasse and likely to see a tie on any motion, the four board members agreed to hold a special meeting before school starts on Aug. 30, with an eye to local developments in the Covid situation and with input from healthcare professionals and the district administrative team, which returns to work next Monday. That meeting will be posted on the district site as soon as it is scheduled.