Most School Districts in Colorado Ditch Mask Mandates

This story by Erica Meltzer appeared on Chalkbeat Colorado on February 14, 2022.

Mask mandates are out in school districts across Colorado.

In the past two weeks, districts across the state have dropped their mask requirements or set deadlines for doing so as local public health departments have also lifted their school mandates. Colorado has not imposed a statewide mask requirement since May 2021.

The decisions come as COVID cases are down sharply after a January omicron wave that tested schools – although with an average of 2,400 new cases being reported each day, cases are still higher than they expected. It was September when many Front Range communities adopted school mask requirements.

The change reflects decisions made in previously COVID-cautious blue states like New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Oregon, which also dropped school mask requirements.

“The health department, politics and the public all seemed to be of a similar stance that now is the time to take the government’s imposition of a mask mandate and make it the parental choice,” said said James Duffy, chief operating officer of Westminster Public Schools. . “Of these three camps, it would be very difficult for us to swim upstream, so we decided to make it the parents’ choice.

“We always encourage our staff and students to wear masks. We are not anti-mask. We just have to focus on educating our children.

Colorado’s local control system has resulted in a patchwork of COVID policies in schools. Some districts, like Westminster, started the school year with a mask mandate, while others adopted one as cases increased. Still other school districts have adopted mask mandates when required by local public health officials, while those outside the Front Range have remained mostly mask-optional throughout.

A study from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment found that schools with mask mandates saw fewer outbreaks than those without.

Mask policies became an issue during school board races last fall. Pro-mask candidates generally prevailed in politically liberal and moderate communities, while anti-mask candidates won in more conservative ones and moved quickly to end mask requirements.

In Mesa Valley District 51 on the West Rim, a new conservative school board voted to end a policy that required masks when more than 2% of a school population tested positive.

Now even school districts and counties with stricter COVID protocols have ditched masks. The Tri-County Board of Health, which oversees Adams and Arapahoe counties, voted Jan. 31 to lift its mask requirement, and most of the 14 school districts in its jurisdiction announced they would do the same. .

Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson said the masking required compromises, particularly for young students learning to read and students learning English. Those trade-offs were worth it when schools had no other way to protect students, but that’s no longer the case, she said.

“For a small child not being able to see a teacher’s face or a teacher not being able to see a small child’s face, that hurt,” Swanson said. “School is a social thing.”

In addition to Tri-County, Denver, Jefferson, Larimer and Pueblo counties have all lifted their school mask requirements in the past two weeks, though Denver’s change doesn’t go into effect until Feb. 28. The Boulder County Board of Health voted Monday to end its school mask mandate, a change that affects schools in Boulder Valley and St. Vrain Valley.

Colorado State University still requires masks, although Poudre and Thompson school districts do not. So far, Pueblo 60 has retained its mandate, although Pueblo 70, which serves unincorporated areas outside of the city, has dropped mask requirements.

Adams 14 in Denver’s working-class Commerce City suburb is also keeping masks. The district uses its own metrics based on community transmission rates, as the school district has generally had higher COVID rates, with more students living in multigenerational households and more parents working essential jobs, than other parts of the county.

The district plans to lift its mask requirement when cases drop below 100 per 100,000 population, the federal threshold for high transmission, which could happen within weeks. Currently, all but two counties in Colorado are still in heavy transmission.

While most children who get COVID will have mild illness, some get very sick. Fifteen school-age children have died of COVID since the pandemic began, according to state health officials. During the recent omicron wave, a record number of children were hospitalized with COVID, about two-thirds of them due to the effects of the virus.

O’Leary of the Academy of Pediatrics would prefer that school districts look at community transmission and vaccination rates before dropping their mask mandates.

“The problem we have when we talk about schools is that we don’t have as high vaccination coverage as we would like, especially for primary school students,” he said. “I would like to see vaccination rates increase before we make these changes.”

Only 31% of Colorado children ages 5 to 11 are fully immunized, a rate above the national average but well below the rest of the population. About 61% of children aged 12 to 15 are fully immunized.

That means COVID can still spread easily in schools, said Susan Hassig, a professor of epidemiology at Tulane University’s School of Public Health, with implications for students’ families, their own health, and the stability of in-person learning.

“The reality is that they’re going to put adults and children in a communal setting for seven hours a day without any kind of source reduction or infection protection,” she said.

O’Leary acknowledges, however, that “the horse has left the barn”.

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