Mask debate dominates Douglas County Schools board meeting

Directors struggled to maintain decorum during emotional meeting

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A line formed at the door. People waited for more than an hour to get inside the meeting. There was not enough capacity for everyone congregating, so security let people in incrementally.

That was the scene Aug. 24 as the Douglas County School District’s board met amid a firestorm of controversy over the district’s COVID-safety policies.

The board had not scheduled a vote or specific agenda item regarding the wearing of masks, but the district’s recently announced mask-wearing requirement for preschool through sixth grade dominated the meeting.

Superintendent Corey Wise broached the policy and its backlash in his superintendent report at the session.

“I hear and I understand and I can empathize with multiple viewpoints,” he said.

Officers at the meeting radioed for people standing outside when their name was called for public comment and ushered one person to the hearing room for each person who left. More than 100 people had signed up to speak.

Inside, those who got a seat stood up when they heard public comment they agreed with. They used jazz hands, spirit fingers, jumped and cheered. When they dissented, they also stood, and faced the back of the room.

Sometimes attendees, most of whom voiced vehement opposition to school mask-wearing requirements, laughed at the few remote speakers who favored masking. Some in the crowd shook their heads and rolled their eyes.

Board President David Ray repeatedly asked for decorum during the evening’s three hours of public comment. He changed his stance on allowing attendees to stand, at first saying it was a good nonverbal way of expressing views but later questioning if it was emboldening outbursts. Those, he said, could intimidate people with different views from speaking.

Late in the evening, the meeting halted abruptly as audience members heckled Director Krista Holtzmann, who said she wanted to fact-check public comment regarding COVID-19.

Following Ray’s command, directors briskly walked out of the room, causing confusion. Several security officers worked to clear the upset crowd, which took a few minutes as people asked whether the meeting was over and if they’d be let back in.

Security reopened doors after a couple minutes and roughly 10 people filtered back into the meeting, which extended late into the night.

By the night’s end, Director Elizabeth Hanson announced she was resigning as board secretary, although not as a director. Comments sent to the board email about COVID-19 are often harsh, starkly polarized and flow in by the hundreds. For her mental and emotional health, she would not do it any longer, Hanson said.

Most speakers condemn mask mandates

The overwhelming majority of speakers during the Aug. 24 meeting urged the district to rescind its mask mandate for young students. They asked board members to change the district’s policy stating that its schools are bound to follow state and local health agencies.

The Tri-County Health Department, whose jurisdiction includes Douglas County as well as Adams and Arapahoe, issued a mask mandate that went into effect Aug. 23 requiring masks indoors among students at schools and daycares, ages 2 through 11. Staff who work with those children were included in the order.

The health agency allowed county commissioners to opt a county out of the order. Schools and districts could continue following the order regardless and a county could not prohibit a district or school from mandating masks.

As of Aug. 25, commissioners of both Douglas and Adams counties had opted their counties out of the Tri-County order.

Nevertheless, Wise said the district’s policy is to work with state and local health agency guidance in the management of common communicable diseases. That requires the Douglas County district to follow the public health order, he said.

Students in preschool through sixth grade are required to wear masks indoors by the district, as are staff who work with them. All visitors must also mask in district buildings. Students in seventh grade or older are strongly encouraged to mask.

Wise said in the first few days of school a low percentage of students were voluntarily masking, but between 80% and 90% were as of Aug. 23 and 24.

Some parents accused the district of hiding behind public health officials. Mask mandates are an infringement on freedoms and the district has no place telling parents how to make personal health decisions, some speakers said.

District parent Hayley Benson said she was a triathlete and participant of the Pikes Peak Marathon. She said she knows firsthand the “highly detrimental effects of shortness of breath and operating at a lower oxygen level.” Daily mask mandates affect children’s breathing ability, she said.

“How can we expect our children to learn effectively when they have lower than usual oxygen levels?” she said.

Speakers criticized what they described as double standards — that Denver Broncos games and concert arenas fill with unmasked people, while age groups at less risk for COVID-19 are forced to mask.

Some told board members to provide peer-reviewed and randomized studies that show a mask mandate for children will be effective at containing the virus’ spread. Many argued masks don’t work or are harmful for young children.

One woman asked if a majority of parents wanted masking, as supporters of a mandate suggested, why so few students voluntarily masked before the mandate began.

Roughly a dozen people at the meeting supported some level of mask requirements, if not for all students than for some age groups. They worried about what lessons children will learn if parents encourage students against following district policy.

Some disagreed with the district’s decision not to reprimand children and families who don’t wear a mask. The district’s principals are instead working with families individually if a child that does not have a qualified exemption to the policy does not mask.

Heather Angell said she teaches her children that “we mask to show kindness to others.”

Statewide, a new poll of 516 Colorado parents of K-12 students, conducted Aug. 9-16 by political polling agency Magellan Strategies, found a sharp split on the issue of school mask mandates, with 50% opposed to requiring masks in schools and 48% in favor of mask rules, a spread within the poll's margin of error.

Public health officials speak

Tri-County Health Executive Director John Douglas spoke remotely to address the agency’s reasons for its health order and why public health officials are still pursuing strategies like mask mandates.

"None of us wanted to be here. We thought we were going to be getting independent by the 4th of July,” he said.

But not enough people are vaccinated and people under 12 years old still aren’t eligible, he said.

The delta variant of the coronavirus is twice as transmissible and some studies indicate it’s more severe, Douglas said. All of Colorado and all metro area counties are seeing case rates “go up dramatically.”

Douglas County saw COVID-19 case rates rise 57% in the past week and 84% in the past two weeks. Case rates per 100,000 “are now the highest in 5 to 10-year-olds in any age groups.” The weekly rate is 350 cases per 100,000 for that age group, he said.

“It’s the highest case rate we’ve measured in 5- to 10-year-olds in Douglas County since the beginning of the pandemic. This is not like back to the bad days of last winter. This is worse in terms of cases in our kids,” he said.

Viral load in a vaccinated person who contracts Delta “is just as high” as in an unvaccinated person, Douglas said, calling that research finding “a huge shock.”

Although the virus is typically milder for young children, baseline severity is increasing with a more severe variant circulating, he said. Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida are seeing pediatric intensive care units fill up, he said.

Children can get infected in schools, spread the virus more than previously thought and could expose vulnerable family members, Douglas said. The “north star” in their decision making is keeping children in in-person learning, he said.

Douglas said schools need to watch case rates among students and the general community going forward. They have to watch severity — hospitalization rates and hospital capacity — and if vaccination rates continue increasing.

“We would love for just strong encouragement and people doing the right thing to be enough, but we weren’t seeing it and we thought the stakes were high enough that when we got encouraged by the (federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and our local chapter of (American Academy of Pediatrics, or AAP) to take things seriously, we thought it was time to act,” Douglas said.

Dr. Larry Schwartz spoke on behalf of the AAP Colorado Chapter. He works in pediatric anesthesiology and pediatric critical care.

“The delta variant is taking away the protection that children seemed to have had in the first year of this pandemic and children are showing up in the hospital,” he said. “Including here in Colorado and certainly around the country.”

Schwartz also addressed mask efficacy. “There is a lot of data” looking at how particles filter through masks, he said, both lab studies and population observations.

“It is clear” that masks of any kind decrease the transmission of the droplets of aerosol particles that carry the virus, he said. People often quote two studies from Denmark in their arguments against masks, Schwartz said.

“It has to be remembered that one of those studies has no control group, the other had a very small population group,” he said. “When you’re looking at studies you have to look at how these things are created. How they’re put together. They’re not all created the same.”

Many in the crowd rebuked Schwartz when he said there is some evidence to show masks reduce anxiety in children because they offer a sense of control. Multiple people during public comment said masks are contributing to the mental health crisis among young people.

“There is no evidence that masks contribution to any detriment of physical or emotional health in the children,” Schwartz said.

One woman disputed Schwartz’s comments and said masks contributed to her teenager’s suicidality.

Factors contributing to mental health concerns among children are a loss of routine, concern for theirs or their parents’ health and isolation from not being in school, Schwartz said.

The men’s remarks did little to sway a crowd, who called them biased doctors. Audience members said directors had cherry picked public health officials who agreed with them. One man who said he had a background working at a children’s hospital called  Schwartz unqualified because he was not an epidemiologist.

’Go back to parental choice’

The meeting followed protests that gathered hundreds early in the week. One took place on Aug. 23 the morning the mandate went into effect and another shortly before the Aug. 24 board meeting.

Protester Richard Hern called masking one of the most pressing issues in schools, although it was not the only reason he joined the Aug. 24 rally. He worries about the loss of nonverbal communication and learning if children must mask, he said.

“I would like to go back to parental choice,” he said.

Holtzmann, the director whose comments led to the sudden break late in the meeting, finished her comments after directors returned to complete the meeting.

She pointed back to rising case rates in children and Schwartz’ comments that masks stifle children’s anxiety by providing control.

At the meeting’s close, she added that freedom to make personal choices stops when those decisions infringe on another person’s rights, comparing COVID public health measures to laws against drunk driving and peanut bans in schools.

"If wearing masks was only about protecting one’s own health, arguments about protecting freedom might hold more weight,” she said.

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