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The Douglas County School District has again updated its mask policy and will begin requiring all students in preschool through sixth grade to wear masks when inside school buildings as a COVID-19 safety measure.
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The rule, which also applies to staff who work with that age group, goes into effect on Aug. 23.
Superintendent Corey Wise made the announcement on Aug. 17 after the Tri-County Board of Health voted to issue a public health order requiring all students ages 2 to 11, and school staff who work with them, to mask up inside schools and childcare settings.
The Tri-County Health Department oversees Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties. The health board’s vote allows county boards to opt a county out of the health order but does not preclude districts or individual schools from following it regardless.
“We realize this adjustment to our COVID protocols may spark a range of emotions in our community from relief to anxiety to anger. However, as previously communicated, DCSD’s COVID protocols will align with local and state health orders,” Wise said in a letter to the district community.
Masks are not required for DCSD students in grades seven through 12 but will be strongly encouraged by the district.
Currently, children 12 and older are eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
The health order is largely in response to rising case rates fueled by the highly transmissible delta variant. Transmission is likely in a school setting among children who are not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, according to a release from the health agency, which said TCHD is aiming to protect in-person learning.
Wise said the district develops its COVID protocols in collaboration with Tri-County Health. He cited district policy that says the management of common communicable diseases will be in accordance with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment or Tri-County Health guidelines.
“Given that Tri-County Health Department has the legal authority to issue public health orders, DCSD is obligated to follow their mask-wearing requirement. Neighborhood, private, magnet, and charter schools within Tri-County Health Department’s jurisdiction all fall under this public health order,” Wise wrote.
The health board’s vote applies to students ages 2 through 11, but because 94% of DCSD’s students in sixth grade fall within that age range the district is applying the rule to the entire sixth grade.
Some district schools place the sixth grade at the elementary level and others at the middle school level.
The district will also require masks indoors for preschool through sixth grade students at its before and after school programs, including BASE, and for athletic programs.
All visitors will be required to wear face coverings at DCSD builldings, including those serving seventh through 12th grade students. Federal orders requiring universal masking on buses remain in effect.
Previously the district strongly encouraged masks indoors but did not require them, except for student-facing staff who are not fully vaccinated.
Wise said the safety of students and staff is a top priority, as is maintaining in-person learning. Public health officials say masking is critical to containing COVID-19’s spread, Wise wrote, pointing to a letter from Tri-County Health Executive Director John Douglas about changing mask guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC now recommends universal masking indoors in areas of high and substantial risk of transmission. Douglas County was considered at a “substantial risk” for community transmission at the time of Douglas’ letter, which is not dated, although the CDC's website now categorizes the county as an area of high transmission.
Wise’s letter said the COVID-19 vaccine will likely become available to children ages 2 through 11 within weeks. The district’s mental health professionals will continue supporting students through the pandemic, he said.
At an Aug. 17 work session, Wise said the district interpreted the health order as a requirement regardless of whether Douglas County commissioners vote to opt out of the Tri-County order, as commissioners told Colorado Community Media they plan to do.
“We as a school district will have to follow this health order,” Wise said. “Even in that health order it states, even if a county opts out school districts have to operate under that.”
Colorado Community Media is waiting on clarification from a Tri-County Health Department spokesperson regarding requirements for districts if counties opt out.
The Douglas County Board of Commissioners have scheduled two meetings to discuss the health department’s order, including an Aug. 18 work session and an Aug. 19 special business meeting.
Commissioners typically have in-depth discussions during work sessions and give limited comments during business meetings. The public will have a chance to speak to commissioners during the special business meeting.
According to legal advice given to the county, the school district is not under any requirement to follow the public health order if the county chooses to opt out, Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon said.
“If the school district decides to adhere to the Tri-County health board, I for one will be disappointed and I think I might work with my colleagues to send a message to the school board,” Douglas County Commissioner George Teal said.
Tri-County’s public health order was approved with six members voting in favor and two members, both from Douglas County, voting against. The third representative from Douglas County, Zach Nannestad, abstained from voting because he is an employee of Douglas County School District.
Douglas County’s two board of health representatives who voted against the mask mandate, Dr. Linda Fielding and Kim Muramoto, both spoke during the meeting emphasizing their concerns for children’s mental health.
Reporters Elliott Wenzler and Ellis Arnold contributed to this story.
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