Health department requires masks for all students in Douglas, Adams and Arapahoe counties, rescinds ability to opt out of health orders

All students, staff and visitors in a large swath of the metro area will be required to wear masks in school starting Sept. 1, following a decision Monday evening by Tri-County Health Department officials to expand the agency’s mask mandate to kids 2 and older as coronavirus cases continue to surge in Colorado.

During the same meeting, the Tri-County board of health also rescinded a policy, passed last November, that allowed Douglas, Adams and Arapahoe counties to opt out of public health orders, an approach that one board member said was causing “concern and confusion” among local officials.

Both Douglas and Adams counties chose not to comply with Tri-County’s Aug. 17 order requiring masks for kids age 2 to 11, prompting Brighton’s 27J school district to recently lift its mask mandate for all students starting next week. Arapahoe County’s commissioners met earlier on Monday to discuss also opting out of Tri-County’s public health orders but that decision, which was set for Tuesday, is now moot.

“It’s really hampering the ability of the health department to follow through on the mandates they are responsible to do,” said Julie Schilz, a board of health member representing Adams County who voted to overturn the opt-out policy.

But Kevin Bracken, a Castle Rock councilman who was appointed to the board on Monday to represent Douglas County, said the choice to opt-out “empowered our community.”

“We’re at a spot where people need to start making their own personal choices,” he said, citing the relatively mild effect that COVID-19 has on the vast majority of children in the state.

As of Monday, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported that among people 19 and younger, 19 have died and nearly 1,200 have been hospitalized for COVID-19 since the pandemic began 18 months ago. That compares to more than 35,000 hospitalizations and more than 7,400 deaths from COVID for all age groups in Colorado.

After the Tri-County vote, the Douglas County commissioners issued a statement condemning the decision to dump the opt-out option, adding that the politically conservative county would continue to explore the possibility of forming “an independent, local public health agency” that will “honor the needs of Douglas County citizens.”

Multiple school districts across the three counties in Tri-County’s jurisdiction will now be required to join Denver Public Schools, the Jefferson County School District and other large metro area districts in requiring students in all grade levels to wear masks. The order is in effect through the end of 2021, though it could be lifted if conditions change.

Tri-County Health’s executive director, Dr. John Douglas, told the board of health Monday that a big driver for masking all students was to cut down on the transmission of the coronavirus — especially its highly contagious delta variant — so that kids wouldn’t have to quarantine and be sent home to learn remotely.

Constant disruption in schooling, Douglas said, led to “isolation and uncertainty” among students last year — “and quarantines were a big part of that.” That isolation, in turn, exacerbated the mental health problems that kids faced.

“More masks, less quarantine. Less masks, more quarantine,” he said.

He noted that recent studies of school districts in Georgia and Indiana showed a 30% and 38% reduction in coronavirus cases, respectively, in districts that mandated mask use versus those that did not make face coverings mandatory.

Rosanna Reyes, who represents Adams County on the Tri-County health board, said the advice from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention strongly recommending masks for all students and staff in schools was important in her decision to vote in favor of expanding the agency’s mask mandate.

“I support doing what we can to keep kids in school,” she said.

But Bracken said the board was “punishing the wrong demographic.” With less than a quarter of one percent of all COVID-19 deaths occurring among those 19 and younger in Colorado since March 2020, he said it was wrong to force children to cover their faces for a full school day when the risk that they will fall seriously ill or die is infinitesimal.

“You are punishing the kids and I’m standing up for them,” he said.

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