Students are safely spaced in a kindergarten class, May 18 at Aurora Quest K-8. Classrooms may look different than they did last year. Masks will not be required for students in APS and Cherry Creek Schools District has yet to release their plan, as of this publication. Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

GREENWOOD VILLAGE | The Cherry Creek School District and Aurora Public Schools have both reversed course from their initial COVID-19 prevention guidelines, and on Friday announced that students in younger grades will be required to wear masks in school.

Cherry Creek will require masks for students in Pre-K through sixth grade and their teachers. District leaders initially said masks would not be mandatory for any students or employees during the upcoming school year.

Aurora Public Schools will require students in child development centers, elementary schools and K-8 schools to wear masks. The district originally only required unvaccinated staff to wear masks. Masks for vaccinated staff and middle and high school students are strongly recommended.

Both districts have been following the health advice of the Tri-County Health Department, which on Friday sent a letter to Cherry Creek Superintendent Chris Smith saying that it was not safe for students under the age of 12 to attend school without masks, because they are not yet eligible to be vaccinated.

The letter, sent from Tri-County director Dr. John Douglas, said that transmission of the delta variant of COVID-19 is highly likely in school settings without high levels of mask wearing. That could put children too young to be vaccinated at risk as well as interfere with in-person learning if there are significant quarantines.

Due to this, the letter said that a public comment period regarding whether Tri-County should implement a public health order to require masks to be worn in schools has been scheduled for Monday, Aug. 16.

Following the letter and a conversation with Douglas, Smith wrote that the district has decided to require masks inside school buildings for students in Pre-K through sixth grade and all staff that work with this age group.

Masks are not mandatory for other students, but it is “strongly recommended” by the district that they be worn inside by all students and staff.

“Safety is our highest priority, and the goal is to maintain in-person learning,” Smith said. “This mask requirement will help us keep schools open and students in classrooms.”

The decision came just days after the district’s first school board meeting of the year, where numerous teachers and parents voiced frustration about the district’s decision not to implement any kind of mask mandate.

“It is apparent to everyone you’re passing the buck,” Jennifer Boynton said during public comment. “We’re going to get more days of in-person learning by wearing masks.” 

A group of more than 80 physicians who have students in Cherry Creek schools also sent an open letter to Smith asking him to mandate masks in school.

“Without mandates, it will be impossible to ensure that unvaccinated children are protecting themselves and others,” the letter said. “Without mask mandates, you are ensuring a COVID outbreak in your schools where vaccination rates are not optimal. Furthermore, by making masks optional, you are applying undue social pressure on kids to do what their friends are doing vis-a-vis masks; while some will feel pressure to wear them, I suspect most will feel pressure to not do so.”

In Friday communications, both districts emphasized the decision was made to preserve the viability of in-person learning, which is a top priority statewide this school year.

We recognize that some of you will be pleased with a stricter mask mandate while others may be upset,” a message from APS Superintendent Rico Munn announcing the change said. “Please know that our focus remains on maintaining strong in-person learning environments as much as possible. We will continue to evaluate our layered approach and add or remove mitigation layers depending on current circumstances.”

In the message, Munn also said that quarantines will be required for unvaccinated students who are exposed to positive COVID-19 cases during extracurriculars including athletics, field trips, band, choir and performing arts.

Both districts are offering free testing for students and families through COVIDCheck Colorado.