Tri-County Health to consider school mask requirement

Health agency may switch away from just recommending student face coverings


Two weeks after the local public health agency for Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties stopped short of requiring masks in schools, the agency announced that it plans to consider issuing some type of mask order for students.

The announcement by the Tri-County Health Department came following an outpouring of comments the agency received from the public — overwhelmingly in favor of a mask mandate, according to the agency's chief.

In late July, the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment released new K-12 school guidelines that left the choice of whether to require masks up to school districts — and, across the Denver metro area, school school mask rules now vary widely. Some districts didn't mandate masks, and others are requiring them for vaccinated and unvaccinated people alike.

“We have gotten more letters in the last week than we have in the entire time I've been here at Tri-County,” with most of the comments favoring a mask requirement, said John Douglas, executive director of Tri-County Health, speaking at an Aug. 12 meeting of Tri-County's board of health. That's the policy-making body for the agency, composed of nine members — three each from Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties.

Douglas, the health chief, said his agency received around 600 to 700 emails on the topic of mask mandates in the past week, and about 90% to 95% of them were pro-mask mandate. The total could be the largest number of emails Tri-County has received within a one-week period across Douglas' time at Tri-County, he told Colorado Community Media.

As of Aug. 12, about 75% of the emails were from Cherry Creek School District parents, 7% were from the Douglas County School District community and the rest were from other areas, according to Tri-County Health.

At an Aug. 16 meeting, the board will consider whether to issue a mask order for at least some students in Tri-County's jurisdiction. How broad the proposal could be was unclear — the agency may consider an approach that “focuses largely” on younger kids, those under age 12 who cannot yet get vaccinated, said Douglas.

But “some would argue a mandate that includes every kid (is easier to apply),” Douglas said. “Both these strategies are worth considering.”

Opt-out unlikely

As of Aug. 13, it was not yet clear — but possible — that the board will take a final vote on a potential mask mandate at that meeting, Douglas told CCM.

A potential school mask mandate from Tri-County would apply to all school districts in Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties, according to Douglas, the health chief.

It’s unlikely that any district could opt out of the mask order if Tri-County does issue it, although the board of health “hasn’t completely addressed that,” Douglas told CCM.

Cities and towns were able to opt out of Tri-County's since-expired mask-wearing order for the general public, and counties were able to opt out unincorporated areas, which are outside of cities and towns.

And when Tri-County Health extended its COVID-19 color-coded “dial” system of business restrictions along with other metro Denver health agencies, Douglas County's elected leaders opted out of the extension during an April 13 meeting.

Pushing masks' effectiveness

Douglas, the health chief, said he hoped a mask order would cut down on coronavirus infections that result in students needing to miss school.

“Overall, we think there'll be better in-person learning and fewer interruptions,” Douglas said during the Aug. 12 meeting, which took place via Zoom videoconferencing. He also expressed concern for the few students who may already choose to wear masks.

“We've already heard anecdotes of bullying happening,” Douglas said.

The health chief acknowledged that some teachers feel that masks negatively impact how they run their classes and that the letters Tri-County received in the prior week don't mean that the public across the board supports a mask order.

Regarding questions such as “Are masks really effective?”, most research is supportive of masks, while some is not, Douglas said.

But the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's website is “far and away the most comprehensive synthesis of what's out there” about mask effectiveness, Douglas said.

In general, the existing data says that “if more people are wearing masks, we'll get more protection,” Douglas said.

See more information on the CDC's website at this page.

The CDC in late July updated its guidance for fully vaccinated people. The CDC recommends "universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status," according to its website.

The CDC's change in guidance was based on surges in infection due to the delta coronavirus variant in many parts of the United States, as well as evolving understanding of vaccinated persons' ability to transmit delta infection and slowing rates of vaccination, according to the Tri-County news release.

Stopping short of issuing a requirement, Tri-County Health on July 30 announced a recommendation that “all persons wear masks in school settings regardless of vaccination status and, as long as we have rising rates of community transmission, that everyone including fully vaccinated persons wear a mask in public indoor settings.”

Tri County Health, mask mandate, order, schools, COVID-19, Colorado, Ellis Arnold


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