GREENWOOD VILLAGE | Tri-County Health Department officials considering mandatory masks in area schools were inundated Monday with public requests to speak to the issue, but only about 30 were allowed to advocate their opposing views.
More than 2,000 people asked to speak at the 90-minute public forum held by the Tri-County Health officials. Another 10,000 people flooded the department with emailed opinions.
Judgment on mandating masks in schools, wildly controversial in the region, and across the country, was sharply divided. Some residents implored the board to implement a mandate for the safety of students, and others decried it as government overreach.
After public comment, the board went into closed session for about two hours to deliberate. Officials said the board is scheduled to reconvene 4:30 p.m. Tuesday to vote on mask mandates in schools.
Controversy over requiring masks for students has raged in the past several days as the new school year gets underway. Public health guidance on masks in schools began to change just in the last few weeks. Following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Tri-County last week strongly recommended that all students and employees wear masks in school regardless of vaccination status to slow the transmission of the delta variant of COVID-19.
However, local districts did not all follow suit when rolling out health plans for the new school year. The Cherry Creek School District initially only recommended masking and did not require it for anyone. Aurora Public Schools said that unvaccinated staff would be required to wear masks, but not anyone else.
On Friday, both districts changed course following a letter from Tri-County Director Dr. John Douglas, sent to Cherry Creek Superintendent Chris Smith, which said that it was not safe for children under 12 to go to school without masks because they are not yet eligible to be vaccinated.
Cherry Creek will now require masks for students in Pre-K through sixth grade and their teachers. APS will require students in child development centers, elementary schools and K-8 schools to wear masks.
At the forum, some parents urged the health department to take the matter further and implement a public health order requiring all students and staff to wear masks in school buildings.
Andrea Nelson has two immunocompromised children in the Douglas County School District. They were looking forward to returning to in-person school, but the family was told by their doctor that it was not safe for them because the district is not requiring masks.
“I’m so disappointed in the lack of caution our schools are taking this school year,” she said.
Others criticized a mask mandate, claiming that masks were damaging to students’ mental health and were unnecessary due to young children’s low rates of contracting COVID-19.
Stephanie Burt, a parent of students in Cherry Creek schools, said that the district “pulled the rug out from under us” by mandating masks on Friday, and that schools should focus on hand washing and quarantining instead.
The first two speakers on Monday both urged families to take their children out of school during the period where school enrollment is counted for funding purposes in order to punish school districts that have mask requirements.
The majority of speakers said that they had children in the Douglas County School District. There were only a few Cherry Creek parents who spoke, and none from APS.
The board initially was going to randomly select speakers, with the intent of creating a representative sample of opinions and geographic location. After board member Dr. Linda Fielding objected, the board instead simply solicited pro- and anti-mask speakers one after another.
Selection grew chaotic as the meeting continued, with the board attempting to get more speakers from outside Douglas County and trying to manually balance the opinions’ of speakers.
The board did not know at the start of the meeting how many of those who submitted feedback were for or against a mandate. After the closed session ended, President Kaia Gallagher said it would be taking into consideration everything said at the forum along with written comments before it votes tomorrow. She apologized to everyone who did not get a chance to speak.
“We appreciate all of your patience,” she said. “This is a really important decision.”