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It’s a piece of cloth. It has been proven to slow the spread of viruses, including the dangerous COVID-19 virus. It is as life-saving as a seat belt, a motorcycle helmet, or child-resistant caps on medicines. It’s not a political statement or a campaign message. So as one political party tries to make it both of those things — as the delta variant is surging across all 50 states, as vaccinations of kids ages 12-17 are lagging and kids under 12 can’t yet be vaccinated — why the hostility against masks?

Salida Middle School students and Principal William Wooddell. Image courtesy of William Wooddell.

The turmoil, fueled by angry parents demanding “freedom” for their kids has become a distraction from the real issue: how to keep kids, especially those too young to be vaccinated, safe in schools and protect their learning environment. Hasn’t that always be the goal, whether it be protection from guns, or bullying, or as now —  from a deadly virus?

As schools go back for the fall session in Colorado, school boards appear to be all over the map on whether to require face masks in schools. One consistent rule would probably be appreciated. But the opposite is true.

Metro Denver school districts aren’t consistent; Littleton Schools are recommending them, not requiring them. Douglas County schools went back two weeks ago in face masks (not a popular move in that conservative-majority county) but stopped short of requiring them. Neither is Platt Canyon Schools.

Jefferson County, which began the school year with a “masks recommended” policy, on Monday afternoon switched to  “masks required” mandate for ages 2 through grade 12, for class rooms, daycare, and after school activities.

Cherry Creek Schools announced they were encouraging face masks but not requiring them. This caused 81 doctors with children in the district to write a protest, accusing the district of retreating from reliance on science and data. Cherry Creek reversed course, announcing that teachers, staff, and grade school children would be required to wear masks.

Two weeks ago Tri-county Health, which covers Arapahoe, Adams, and Douglas Counties stopped short of requiring students to wear face masks. The agency announced late Friday that it will now issue some sort of mask order for schools, and they meet Monday evening, Aug. 16.

Salida Middle school students. Image by William Wooddell.

Over this past weekend, Eagle County reversed course. While it first said it would only recommend them, it announced late Friday afternoon that it would require face masks for all students, teachers, staff, and visitors at all buildings where students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade are present. Schools opened this morning for the year.

The Vail Daily reported that Eagle County Schools’ Superintendent Philip Qualman, made the change from recommendation to required, based on data from Eagle County Public Health.

“We’re disappointed at the timing, but we can’t control when metrics change, and we’ve said all along that we would be responsive to those changes,” said Qualman. “Even if it happens the Friday before school starts, we have to be prepared to pivot on a moment’s notice.”

Lake County School District sounded as if it was only recommending face masks, not requiring them. But in a message late last week it announced: “As a vaccine for our twelve-and-under population is not yet an option, we are requiring mask-wearing by students and adults in these buildings. Once the option to be fully vaccinated for all of our 12 years and younger students is available, we will revisit this requirement.”

The Fremont County Department of Public Health and Environment released its school recommendations in early August, recommending that everyone in K-12 schools wear a mask, regardless of vaccination status, but didn’t require it. Cañon City and Florence-Penrose schools are not mandating facemasks.

Just within Chaffee County, the two school districts appear to have taken different approaches. Today is the first day of school for the Salida School District. Originally, Salida Schools recommended that students and teachers wear face masks but didn’t require them. But as of Aug. 12, the school district website announced a heightened expectation. “Masks are expected in school.  If a child does not wear a mask your family risks quarantines. Masks are required for adult guests to our buildings, and on all of our busses for students and staff.”

The message from Salida school Superintendent David Blackburn did not stop there. It continued “Staff will be challenging all students to wear a mask, regardless of vaccination status in order to protect our community, keep our kids in school and businesses open.”

Buena Vista Middle and High School. Photo by Tara Flanagan.

Buena Vista School District, which opens Aug. 23, issued an Aug. 9  message, announcing that it was reopening in a “Recovery Phase”.  It appears to hedge on the politically fraught face mask decision. It asks parents to “Please make sure your student has a mask with them at school at all times so it can be used in higher-risk situations that the staff will identify”.

But in this morning’s “BV Schools Monday Minute it reiterated a stronger “personal responsibility”, masks-not-required stance: “At this time, mask-wearing will not be required except on buses (federally mandated). Every staff and student must have a mask with them each day to use in situations when learning experiences include an extended close contact (typically more than 15 minutes consecutively, less than 3 feet, and in low ventilated areas). Our Response Team will consistently evaluate data and make decisions about additional needs for masking.”

Perhaps it’s a sign that there may be more of an anti-mask undercurrent in the Buena Vista local community than in the southern county, that it added, “Any person may voluntarily wear a mask and we will fully protect and honor the person’s choice as a school community. It will be our responsibility to ensure this is protected.”

In states such as New York and California, requirements don’t just include face masks to be worn by all, but they include requirements that all teachers and staff be vaccinated, or submit to weekly COVID testing.