Tri-County will require masks in schools for those under 12, not for all

A young boy wearing a mask rests his head on a desk as he completes a worksheet.
A student completes a worksheet during the first day of school in Aurora on Thursday, August 12. The district had initially recommended masks but has since required them. (Eli Imadali for Chalkbeat)

Public health officials for Tri-County, representing three suburban Denver counties, voted Tuesday to require students aged 2 to 11 to wear masks in schools. Staff who work with these students must also wear masks.

The motion, which the Tri-County Board of Health passed in a split vote following heated public comment, directs the agency to write the mask mandate to take effect by Aug. 23. Tri-County comprises Adams, Arapahoe, and Douglas counties. Should any of those individual counties opt out of the requirement, it would be up to school districts to decide whether to follow the order. 

Dr. Thomas Fawell, the Board of Health member who presented the motion that passed, said that while he understands that federal guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other groups recommend universal masking in schools, local data is less worrisome than in other areas of the country where COVID-19 vaccination rates remain low.

“While we do have an increase in cases, which puts us in what they have termed a high transmission area, our cases and our transmission don’t equal hospitalizations or deaths,” Fawell said.

Tri-County covers 15 school districts surrounding Denver, all with varying mask policies. In response to Tri-County considering a mandate, the Adams 12, Aurora, and Cherry Creek districts all strengthened their mask requirements related to younger children but did not require them for all students and staff.

Children over 12 have been eligible to vaccinate for months. Tuesday’s order was silent about them. Initially, the board voted on a proposed universal mask order, but it failed.

The local public health department in Jeffco, which is not covered by the Tri-County health board, issued a mask order for schools late Monday, and Denver’s Department of Public Health and Environment issued one on Tuesday afternoon. Both orders require masks for staff and students over the age of 2, regardless of vaccination status. 

In Denver, the school district already required masks for students and staff, but the city order will also apply to private schools, day care centers, and charter schools that may have had different policies.

The Tri-County Board of Health had several options. They could have kept the health department’s guidance as a recommendation to school districts, mandate masks for children under 12 and staff who work with them, or require masks for everyone in school buildings. 

The health board heard testimony Monday from about 30 speakers over 90 minutes, a tiny percentage of the 2,000 people who were signed up to speak. Another 10,000 people submitted written comments. 

Parents who supported a mandate said they want their children to attend school in person and believe universal masking is the best way to keep classrooms safe and reduce disruptive quarantines. 

Andrea Nelson told the Board of Health she struggled to help her two sons, who both receive special education services, with remote learning last school year. Her children are also immunocompromised, so when the Douglas County School District said it would not require masks, she decided to keep them home another year.

“We were looking forward to safely attending school this fall and healing some of the damage from last year,” she said. “Unfortunately, since the delta variant has entered the picture and Douglas County is not requiring masks, our doctors have said it is not safe for them to return to in-person learning this year. And so our isolation and lockdown continues. I am so disappointed in the lack of precautions our schools are taking this year.”

Jordana Hoppe, the mother of a child entering kindergarten in the Cherry Creek district and a pediatric pulmonologist, said schools should follow CDC recommendations and require everyone to wear a mask.

“Everyone here agrees that the best option is for kids to be in school, not only from an educational standpoint but also for the social and psychological benefits,” she said. “How can this be accomplished safely without COVID infections, quarantines, and school closures?”

The answer is universal masking, said Hoppe, who cited studies showing masks decrease the spread of COVID-19. 

Parents who oppose a mandate said they believe the risk to their own children is small and connected the broader mental health impacts of the pandemic to mask-wearing. They said masks cause more fear and anxiety.

“For some children, masks mean not knowing the mood of the people they’re interacting with or the intent or tone of a conversation,” Bryan Johnston told the Board of Health. 

Some who spoke before the health board cited incorrect information that masks are dangerous to children’s health — something medical experts say is not supported by any evidence.

“It is not our children’s job to suffocate themselves to make other people feel safe,” said Jackie Houlberg, a mother of four school-aged children. “If people are that concerned, you can keep your children home and keep your fears off of other people’s children.”

Most of the speakers were from Douglas County, a conservative community where the school district previously recommended but did not require masks, and the county commissioners have openly sparred with Tri-County over COVID regulations for most of the pandemic.

Douglas County Commissioners are scheduled to hold a special meeting Wednesday morning. The commissioners told the Douglas County News-Press they intend to opt out of the mask requirement, but Douglas County School District said it would follow the health order.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis has indicated he does not intend to issue a statewide mask mandate for schools at this time. That has left the decision up to local officials.

Dr. Linda Fielding, one of the Tri-County Board of Health members who voted against issuing an order, said that politics has interfered with science, and she is not convinced that the need for masks outweighs taking away local control from elected school boards.

In addition to Jefferson and Denver’s local public health orders, Boulder also already adopted a public health order requiring masks in schools, while Broomfield and Eagle counties require masks for younger children. 

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