With less than a month to go, many parents in Colorado are still waiting to see if their children will need to wear masks in class.
Colorado’s latest public health order in early July said masks were no longer required by the state in schools. But federal guidelines released days later recommended that all unvaccinated students or staff continue to wear masks in schools, as well as follow several other safety precautions, in an effort to keep schools open for the time being. in-person learning.
Some districts used the initial state guidelines to immediately change the rules in their summer programs, while other district leaders said it was not appropriate to change the rules with so little time. remaining in these programs.
Now that parents, students and staff prepare for the coming school year, decisions about what precautions to take in schools will be primarily a matter of local control. District leaders were reluctant to talk about the mask decisions, saying only that they were still working with local public health agencies as they finalized the plans.
School officials in many communities face competing pressures between public health boards, parents who want a more ‘normal’ school year for their children, and other parents who want COVID precautions to stay in place. Meanwhile, vaccination rates vary widely across the state, and some communities in Colorado are seeing an increase in COVID cases.
A few districts have announced their intention to make masks optional this coming school year. This includes Douglas County, Weld RE-4 in Windsor, Adams 12 and Westminster, where officials said the decision was not yet final.
Weld RE-4 told families their plans may still need to “be adjusted to accommodate changing public health circumstances if necessary.”
While the final say is likely to remain a decision of the local school district, updated state guidance is still possible, although state officials this week are not providing further clarity.
Officials from two local public health agencies, Denver and Tri-County, said they strongly suggest to principals in their jurisdiction that anyone who is unvaccinated, including children under 12, should continue to wear masks.
“Masking can be one of the factors that can keep schools safe,” said Dr. Bill Burman, director of Denver Public Health. “In-person schooling has many benefits, and because it’s our top priority, maintaining full in-person learning, masking is one of the things that can help us do that. “
Burman said the Colorado Department of Public Health has sought advice from local public health officials on this and other school precautions. Burman said he told the state he believes unvaccinated staff and students should wear masks indoors.
Sam Decker, the Tri-County Public Health School Liaison Officer, also communicated to state and schools in Tri-County jurisdiction that unvaccinated people should continue to wear masks.
“We expect they will issue operational guidelines,” Decker said of the state. She said many districts are waiting for these updated guidelines, but they may have to arrive within the next week for schools to apply them to their back-to-school plans.
The decision to require masks has no significant drawbacks, according to public health officials. Burman said that while not being able to see full facial expressions hinders communication, he said it was not as big a concern as the possibility of illness. Public health experts also say there is no evidence that children can contract other illnesses while wearing a mask.
“On the contrary, there is every reason to believe that there are many scientific reasons why masking could reduce the transmission of other diseases,” said Burman. “The masking for young children went well.”
But despite the evidence, some parents have demanded that masks no longer be required, as a condition for re-enrolling their children. Other parents ask for assurances that masks will be needed.
Jeffco’s parent Jeffco’s parent Kirstin McConnell told the school board last month that requiring masks for unvaccinated students would end up shaming families who are not ready for a new vaccine and that masks themselves interfere with learning.
“Lift up the masks. Let them learn, ”she said to applause at a recent board meeting. “You get so many facial expressions looking at someone. It’s part of learning.
But Rusha Lev, a parent and pediatrician from Jeffco who practices in Denver, said the masks will help keep children safe in school and reduce quarantines that remove children from the classroom. With vaccines for young children likely to be approved this fall, she urged district officials to keep the masks on for a few more months.
“Why stop? Children are not afraid to wear masks, ”she said. “It’s an inexpensive and very effective way to prevent the spread of disease. I admitted a child last week, 10, on oxygen, to the hospital with COVID. Both her mother and grandmother were vaccinated. He had that in the community. The rates are low, the kids are at low risk, but we can’t pretend it’s done until it’s done. ”
Parent Kelly Kenyon told council her two children contracted COVID in March 2020 and have had ongoing health issues since.
“I don’t wish any family to go through what we went through last year, especially when the masks could minimize the risk,” she said. “I am concerned that having an unmasked policy exposes all of our children to devastating consequences.”
Jeffco Superintendent Tracy Dorland told the board that she encourages all parents to share their concerns not only with the district but also with state officials.
“We are advocating very strongly with the governor’s office that masks may be optional for our students in our schools,” Dorland said. “We are working to ensure that we take advantage of all the flexibilities that are now granted to ensure that our schools can be as close as possible to normal operations.”
Meanwhile, state teacher unions and the state chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics have also urged schools to maintain mask requirements for unvaccinated people.
Another factor that school principals are taking closely is the number of COVIDs, Decker said.
COVID numbers have fallen from their all-time highs, but in some areas they have recently started to rise, with officials blaming the more contagious Delta variant, which is spreading the most among those who are not vaccinated. Los Angeles County health officials announced on Thursday that due to a recent spike in their cases, mask warrants would return for everyone, including those already vaccinated. It is possible that other places across the country will do the same soon.
Burman said the Delta variant was a big factor in the pursuit of masking. Earlier, he said the evidence showed young children were less at risk than adults, but now, he said, he was concerned that there was no more data on the new variants.
“I don’t know what the age-specific risk of Delta infection and transmission are in young children,” Burman said. And he doubts Colorado has a much better idea of whether or not Delta affects children differently in a month.
Decker said that in order for the masking guidelines to be relaxed quickly and safely, the rate of people vaccinated must increase. But since all children under 12 are still unable to receive a vaccine, the overall vaccination rate is unlikely to reach high enough rates.
Colorado state health officials estimate that approximately 240,000 people between the ages of 12 and 18 have been vaccinated. That’s more than half of the number of students enrolled in Grades 7 to 12, but still leaves many middle and high school students unvaccinated, as well as all students under the age of 12.
According to figures from Denver, more than half of eligible children under the age of 18 have received at least the first dose of the vaccine. According to data from Tri-County, in Adams County, 38% of 12 to 15 year olds received at least the first dose of the vaccine while about 52% of 16 to 17 year olds did.
“This will be our first line of defense,” Decker said.