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The debate over how to protect children from the COVID-19 Delta variant — centered on pieces of cloth continues. In the meantime, the ethical responsibilities of adults in charge of keeping our children safe is moving front and center and the confusing situation around a school face mask mandate isn’t helping calm many parents’ fears.

Salida Middle School Students get down to learning. Image by William Wooddell.

The school face mask mandates being considered by Tri-County Health on the Front Range were delayed Monday evening when Douglas County Commissioners pushed back hard. Media attending the session described the 90-minute discussion including public comments and commissioner comments as “heated.”  The public session was followed by a more than two-hour executive session. At the end of the hours-long evening, the Tri-County Health Department Board of Health delayed a decision on a school mask mandate decision until its 4:30 p.m. Tuesday meeting.

Douglas County is the largest school district in the state without a face masks mandate. The crux of the argument by Douglas County commissioners during the session: that while the Delta variant is more contagious, it’s not necessarily more dangerous in children. While Tri-County Health presented the need based on data, Douglas County Commissioners dismissed it, saying “they will not make decisions based on what they call sensational news and social media reports”.

Tri-County Health responded that they have received around 600 communications from parents in the past week, more than 90 percent of them asking for face mask mandates.

Crew time for Lake County students last school semester, attending a Second Day school Support program at 100 Elks Outdoor Center in Buena Vista. Photo by Rachel Polidevin.

“We have gotten more letters in the last week than we have in the entire time I’ve been here at Tri-County,” with most of the comments favoring a mask requirement, said Tri-County Health Executive Director John Douglas, speaking at an Aug. 12 meeting of Tri-County’s board of health (The policy-making body for the agency, composed of nine members — three each from Adams, Arapahoe, and Douglas counties.)

In Tuesday’s meeting, the Tri-County Health Department voted 6 to 2 in favor of requiring face masks for children ages two to 11, and face masks for all teachers, staff, and visitors to all school and child care facilities, but counties are allowed to opt-out of the mandate. The mandate applies to Douglas, Arapahoe, and Adams counties and goes into effect on Aug. 23.

The three counties have become an island among metro-area public schools. Neighboring  Denver Public Schools require students, teachers, school staff, and visitors for all schools and childcare centers to wear masks regardless of their vaccination status. This week Jefferson County has moved to school face mask mandates.

A Single Case Becomes a Public Health Example

Meanwhile, as teachers returned to Cherry Creek Schools for no-contact prep last week, ahead of the Aug. 16 first day of school, a teacher in one of the seven high schools thought he had a sinus infection from the wildfire smoke. By Friday, after a full week of meetings with other teachers wearing no face mask, he lost his sense of taste and smell, tested positive, and informed the principal. The principal at first asked him to keep it a secret, and he refused, saying that there was an ethical responsibility to let his fellow teachers and Tri-County Health know. He called Tri-County health, and finally, so did the principal.

Most of his fellow teachers had to go get tested and on Tuesday one tested positive; although she was one of the few teachers wearing a face mask the prior week and was fully vaccinated. School started on Monday. There has been no word on whether the school is instigating any kind of contact quarantine.

“I think we had about 40 percent of our students, and all the teachers wearing face masks on the first day of school,” said one of the (fully-vaccinated) teachers at the school, who asked to remain anonymous. “It was more than I thought it would be and I’m glad. But still, we’ve been exposed.”

Governor’s Message to schools

Recognizing the confusing school face mask situation, on Tuesday Governor Jared Polis and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Executive Director Jill Ryan sent a letter to school superintendents and charter school leaders making clear that “the state is ready to support our schools, students, parents, and teachers in order to meet the goals of safety and uninterrupted in-person learning for students.”

The letter notes that when the state’s disaster emergency ended, and the public health order expired on July 3, public health decisions reverted to local officials. But they said they are watching troubling data from southern states as schools across the nation try to return to in-person learning and “actively deciding against instituting the health mitigation protocols that are proven to reduce the spread of COVID-19 — having to return to remote learning as far too many children are being infected with this disease, some with severe cases.”

The data they reference is concerning; pediatric hospitalized cases of the Delta variant are up 950 percent in some states; more children are seriously ill from COVID-19 than at any point in this pandemic.

“It’s worrisome that some of Colorado’s school districts and schools might suffer the same outcome if they do not take recommended actions to protect their students and staff, and preserve in-person learning,” the letter continued. “While the state of Colorado has been responsive to local leaders’ requests to revert decision-making back to them, our administration has provided guidance and support for local school districts to ensure the safety of all our children.”

Last week, Governor Polis announced additional steps the state is taking to ensure students, faculty, and staff can safely return to school.

“Our administration has provided school districts and school leaders with science-based guidance to return to safe in-person learning, free medical-grade masks, free testing, and we stand ready to support you in your work. The state of Colorado is ready to change course if our students’ safety is threatened or compromised and in-person learning is put in jeopardy … the strategies laid out in our guidance, including mask-wearing, especially for the unvaccinated; serial testing, especially for students engaged in higher-risk activities; and policies that all students and personnel stay home when sick. We continue to be ready to support and partner with you to meet our shared goals of safety and uninterrupted in-person learning for any student and family in Colorado,” the letter concluded.

Unlike most of the rest of the state, Chaffee County’s two public school districts operated primarily as in-person learning environments last year. Their leadership has noted the valuable experience they gained in how to manage the protocols necessary to maintain in-person instruction. However neither has outright mandated face masks for students of any age within our local school environments.