Should Colorado students wear masks in school? Most districts are still weighing options.

Young girl in a mask printed with pink hearts, works on her laptop at a learning center.
A masked student works on a laptop in a classroom in Denver in August 2020. Most districts have yet to decide if masks will again be required for the upcoming school year. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

With the start of school less than a month away, many Colorado parents are still waiting to know if their children will be required to wear masks in the classroom.

Colorado’s latest public health order at the beginning of July said masks were no longer required by the state in school settings. But federal guidance released days later recommended that any unvaccinated students or staff continue to wear masks in schools, along with following several other safety precautions, with the goal of keeping schools open for in-person learning. 

Some districts used the state’s initial guidance to change the rules right away in their summer programs, while other district leaders said it was not appropriate to switch the rules with so little time left in those programs. 

Now as parents, students and staff prepare for the upcoming school year, the decisions about what precautions to take in schools will mostly be a matter of local control. District leaders were hesitant to talk about mask decisions, only saying they were still collaborating with local public health agencies as they finalized plans. 

School officials in many communities face competing pressures between public health guidance, parents who want a more “normal” school year for their children, and other parents who want to see COVID precautions remain in place. Meanwhile, vaccination rates vary widely around the state, and some Colorado communities are seeing an increase in COVID cases.

A few districts have announced that they intend to make masks optional this coming school year. That includes Douglas County, Weld RE-4 in Windsor, Adams 12, and Westminster, where officials said the decision is not yet final.

Weld RE-4 told families that their plans may still have to  “be adjusted to align with changing public health circumstances as necessary.”

While the final say is likely to stay a local school district decision, updated guidance from the state is still possible, although state officials this week would not give more clarity.

Officials from two local public health agencies, Denver and Tri-County, said they are strongly suggesting to school leaders in their jurisdiction that anyone who isn’t vaccinated, which includes any children under 12, should keep wearing masks.

“Masking can be one of the factors that can keep schools safe,” said Dr. Bill Burman, director of Denver Public Health. “There are many benefits to in-person schooling, and because that’s our highest priority, maintaining full in-person learning, masking is one of the things that can help us do that.”

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Burman said that the Colorado Department of Public Health has asked for input from local public health officers about this and other school precautions. Burman said he told the state he believes unvaccinated staff and students should wear masks indoors.

Sam Decker, Tri-County Public Health’s school liaison, also communicated to the state and to the schools in Tri-County’s jurisdiction, that unvaccinated people should continue to wear masks. 

“We do anticipate they will be releasing operational guidance,” Decker said of the state. She said many districts are waiting for that updated guidance, but that it may need to come in the next week or so for schools to be able to apply it to their back-to-school plans.

The decision to require masks has no significant downsides, according to public health officials. Burman said that while not being able to see full facial expressions does get in the way of communication, he said that’s not as significant a concern as the possibility of illness. Public health experts also say there is no evidence that children can get sick with other illnesses by wearing a mask.

“To the contrary there’s every reason to think there’s plenty of scientific rationale for why masking might decrease transmission of other diseases,” Burman said. “Masking for young children went fine.”

But despite the evidence, some parents have demanded that masks not be required anymore, as a condition to re-enroll their children. Other parents are asking for assurances that masks will be required. 

Jeffco parent Kirstin McConnell told the school board last month that requiring masks for unvaccinated students would end up shaming families that aren’t ready to get a new vaccine and that the masks themselves interfere with learning.

“Lift the masks. Let them learn,” she said to applause at a recent board meeting. “You get so much facial expression from looking at someone. That’s part of learning.”

But Rusha Lev, a Jeffco parent and pediatrician who practices in Denver, said masks will help keep children safe in school and reduce quarantines that take children out of the classroom. With vaccines for younger children likely to be approved this fall, she urged district officials to maintain masks for a few more months.

“Why stop? Kids don’t mind wearing masks,” she said. “It’s a low cost, very effective way to prevent the spread of a disease. I admitted a child last week, 10 years old, on oxygen, in the hospital with COVID. His mother and grandmother were both vaccinated. He got this in the community. The rates are low, kids are low risk, but we can’t pretend this is done until it is done.”

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Parent Kelly Kenyon told the board her two children contracted COVID in March 2020 and have had ongoing health problems since.

“I don’t wish any family to go through what we have gone through in the last year, especially when masks could minimize the risks,” she said. “I’m concerned that having an unmasked policy would expose all our children to devastating consequences.”

Jeffco superintendent Tracy Dorland told the board that she was encouraging all parents to not only share their concerns with the district, but also with state officials. 

“We are advocating very strongly to the governor’s office in regards to masks possibly being optional for our students in our schools,” Dorland said. “We are working to make sure we’re taking advantage of all the flexibilities that are now being given to make sure our schools can get as close as possible to normal operations.”

Meanwhile, the state’s teachers unions and the state chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics have also urged schools to keep mask requirements for unvaccinated people.

Another factor school leaders are closely considering is COVID numbers, Decker said.

COVID numbers have dropped from their highs, but in some areas have recently started rising as officials blame the more contagious Delta variant, which is spreading most among those who remain unvaccinated. Thursday, Los Angeles county health officials announced that because of a recent spike in their cases, masking mandates would return for all, including those who are already vaccinated. It’s possible other places across the country could do the same soon. 

Burman said the Delta variant is a big factor in why masking should continue. Earlier, he said evidence showed younger children were at lower risk than adults, but now, he said, he’s concerned there isn’t more data on the new variants.

“I don’t know what the age-specific risks of Delta infection and transmission are in young children,” Burman said. And he doubts Colorado will have a much better idea of whether Delta is or isn’t affecting children any differently in a month.

Decker said that to quickly, and safely, be able to relax masking guidance, the rate of people who are vaccinated needs to increase. But because all children under 12 remain unable to receive a vaccine, the overall rate of vaccination isn’t likely to reach high enough rates. 

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More than 240,000 Coloradans ages 12 to 18 have been vaccinated, according to state health officials, about 45% of the people in that age group and more than half the number of students enrolled in 7th through 12th grade. That still leaves many middle and high school students unvaccinated, along with all students under 12.

According to Denver numbers more than half of eligible children under 18 have received at least the first dose of the vaccine. According to Tri-County data, in Adams County, 38% of 12 to 15 year olds have received at least the first dose of the vaccine while about 52% of 16 to 17 year olds have done so.

“That’s going to be our first line of defense,” Decker said.

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