Tri-County considers school mask mandate; suburban districts change policy

Girl with a mask sits in class
The Cherry Creek school district will require masks indoors for children in preschool through sixth grade and staff who work with those students. (Jeremy Chavez / Courtesy Cherry Creek School District)

Tri-County Health Department is considering a public health order requiring masks in schools, and already suburban school districts have changed their mask policies in response.

In a letter sent to area superintendents Friday, Tri-County Health Director John Douglas underscored his concerns about the more contagious delta variant and its impact on unvaccinated children.

“Conditions in schools are presently not safe for unvaccinated children, particularly those below 12 years of age who are not currently eligible for vaccination, without required universal masking,” he wrote. 

Douglas also encouraged school leaders to adopt policies that maximize mask-wearing, regardless of whether his board adopts a mask mandate.

Boulder County has already adopted a mask requirement for schools and child care settings, and on Friday, Broomfield County and Eagle County moved to require masks for younger children.

On Friday afternoon, a number of suburban school districts updated their mask policies to require them for younger children, as did Eagle County Schools.

Cherry Creek School District announced it would change its policy from recommending masks to requiring them for students in preschool through sixth grade and staff who work with those students. 

“Safety is our highest priority, and the goal is to maintain in-person learning,” Superintendent Christopher Smith wrote. “This mask requirement will help us keep schools open and students in classrooms.”

Smith cited the strong warning from Douglas in changing the district’s policy, even though the health department has recommended universal masking in school settings for weeks. The school district also received a letter this week from dozens of parents who are also physicians asking for stronger mask policies.

Aurora Public Schools also said it would require masks for all students in child care centers, elementary schools, and K-8 and P-8 schools and encourage staff to wear masks regardless of vaccination status. The district previously recommended masks for unvaccinated students and only required them for unvaccinated staff.

Superintendent Rico Munn said the policy change was motivated by a desire to avoid disruptive quarantines.

Tri-County has advised the district that “circumstances have changed over the past few weeks and that disruption to our in-person learning environment has become increasingly likely if APS does not add an additional mitigation layer to our layered approach,” he wrote. “The choices are to either add a stricter mask mandate focused on students who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated or to implement strict quarantines for close contacts.”

Adams 12 Five Star Schools also announced a mask requirement for children in preschool through sixth grade. The district previously required masks for staff regardless of vaccination status but left it up to parents whether students would wear masks. Adams 12 has schools in Adams County, under Tri-County jurisdiction, and in Broomfield County.

The Tri-County Board of Health, which is made up of appointed representatives from the three counties, will meet Monday to consider whether to impose a mask mandate in school settings. The board could do nothing, require masks for younger children and staff who work with them, or require masks for everyone in school settings. The meeting is open to public comment.

In his letter, Douglas said transmission of the delta variant is “highly likely” in school settings without mask wearing, which in turn poses a risk to the physical health of children and to vulnerable friends and family members in the community. It also could disrupt in-person learning, which is important to the emotional and mental health of children, he said. The board cited these factors as the rationale for considering a mask mandate.

Tri-County Health Department oversees 15 school districts in Adams, Arapahoe, and Douglas counties, and those suburban Denver area districts have adopted a range of mask policies. 

Westminster Public Schools, for example, requires that everyone wear a mask inside, regardless of vaccination status, while the Adams 14 district is basing its mask rules on community transmission rates and changing requirements on a weekly basis.

Douglas County School District recommends masking but does not require it. Even phrasing its policy as a recommendation upset some parents in the conservative community, where county commissioners considered withdrawing from Tri-County Health Department over disagreements about COVID policy before agreeing to stick with the agency at least through next year. 

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment recommends that everyone wear a mask in school settings, in accordance with federal guidance. However, individual school districts and county health departments set mask policies.

Students in many Colorado districts start school in early to mid-August, and most of them are attending class in person.

On Thursday, Gov. Jared Polis said he had no plans at this time to impose a statewide mandate in schools, but that might change if rising COVID cases push too many schools into remote learning. He also told parents to expect a disrupted school year with quarantines and abrupt switches to online learning.

There are currently seven Colorado children under the age of 10 in the hospital for COVID-19 and another 10 children ages 10 to 19, according to state officials.

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