Jeffco health officials order masks for all in schools

Seen from above, a masked student walks in a wide school corridor.
Local public health officials issued an order requiring masks in Jeffco schools starting Tuesday, which is the first day of classes for most students. (AAron Ontiveroz / The Denver Post)

Students starting classes in Jeffco schools Tuesday will have to wear masks after all, regardless of age or their vaccination status.

The Jefferson County Public Health Department issued an order Monday that requires masks for anyone age 2 or older when in childcare and K-12 schools. The order also requires all unvaccinated students and staff participating in extracurricular activities to undergo routine testing during the school year, starting Sept. 7.

“Over the past few weeks, we have seen schools that do not require masking in other parts of the country be required to send large numbers of students home to quarantine and even close schools,” said Dr. Dawn Comstock, executive director of Jefferson County Public Health. “While our department released very strong guidance to Jeffco schools and childcare settings recommending they require mask-wearing, unfortunately too few schools and childcares have adopted this safe and effective mitigation strategy.”

In a message to families, the Jeffco school district announced that despite having just set up a process to provide medical and religious exemptions, the public health order will not allow for religious exemptions, only medical ones.

The Jeffco order takes effect Tuesday and applies to all schools in the county, including charter schools and private schools.

The order also asks schools to space students out by six feet when they remove their masks indoors such as during lunch. 

On Thursday, Gov. Jared Polis said he has no plans to impose a statewide mandate in schools, but that might change if rising COVID cases push too many schools into remote learning

On Friday afternoon, several school districts updated their mask policies to require them for younger children, including Aurora, Adams 12, and Cherry Creek, after Tri-County Health Director John Douglas said the department was considering an order and stated that schools were unsafe for unvaccinated children without masks.

Jeffco announced its decision as the Tri-County Board of Health heard passionate public testimony for and against a school mask mandate. Tri-County oversees 15 school districts in Adams, Arapahoe, and Douglas counties. The Board of Health continued its discussion in a closed executive session, then put off a decision until Tuesday.

Denver Public Schools already requires masks for all students and staff.

Previously, the Jeffco Public School district had issued its own guidance requiring masks for children under 12, but only recommending them for older students. Staff were required to provide proof of vaccination and those who are not vaccinated would have been required to wear masks.

At the time, the district had cited the public health department’s guidance on quarantines as a key factor in the mask policy. The district’s choice was meant to reduce the need to send students home. 

At the time, at the end of July, the district also noted transmission of the virus in the county was increasing and case rates were at 77 per 100,000 in the county. As of Aug. 8, case rates in Jefferson County were at 91.8 cases per 100,000 people.

Parents opposed to having their children wear masks protested after the district released its guidance. Many common arguments against masks contain incorrect information. Public health experts say there are no significant downsides to wearing masks. 

As of last week, about 952 students in Jeffco had chosen to continue online learning for this school year.  

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