Tri-County Health Department board mandates masks for students under 12

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GREENWOOD VILLAGE | After a motion to implement a mask mandate for all students and staff failed, the Tri-County Health Department voted 6-2 Tuesday to mandate that students under 12 and the teachers and school employees interacting with them wear masks this school year.

The meeting was a continuation of a Monday public forum to discuss a potential mask mandate. The board heard 90 minutes of public comment on Monday and then spent about two hours in executive session before announcing that it would resume the meeting Tuesday afternoon and take a vote. 

Health department spokesperson Becky O’Guin told the Sentinel it met in executive session because it was consulting with attorneys about the legal ramifications of potential mandates.

One board member, Rosanna Reyes, objected Monday to continuing the meeting to the next day. As of press time she had not responded to a Sentinel inquiry about why.

About 30 people spoke at the Monday meeting, and the board asked to hear from an equal number of people who supported and opposed a mask mandate for schools. Over 12,000 others submitted written comments to the board and filled out a survey soliciting their opinion on a potential mask mandate. 

The district published the survey results and comments on its website Tuesday afternoon. Over half the respondents were from Douglas County, while 22% were from Arapahoe County and just 10% from Adams County.

In total, 62% of respondents said they did not support a mask mandate under any circumstances, 31% said they supported a mandate and 8% said they supported it in indoor settings in the presence of those 11 and younger.

The latter option is what the board ultimately selected. The vote authorizes the health department to issue a public health order requiring face coverings to be worn by children ages 2 to 11 and adults who interact with them in all indoor school and childcare settings in the three counties. Counties have the option to opt out of the order, but individual schools and childcare centers can still follow the order if they choose.

The motion passed 6-2, with Douglas County board members Dr. Linda Fielding and Kim Muramoto voting against it, and Douglas County board member Zachary Nannestad abstaining from voting because he is employed by a school district affected by the order.

The motion was the second vote of the evening. Board member Julie Mullica initially introduced a motion to authorize a mask mandate for all students and employees in schools and childcare centers. The motion failed 4-4, with Nannestad abstaining.

Before the votes, most board members made brief public comments. Several addressed concerns from Monday’s forum that masks are harmful to kids’ physical or mental health.

“There’s no significant health effects from wearing a mask,” said Dr. Thomas Fawell. “Having spent 35 years in masks in surgery I can attest to that.”

He said he could not speak to potential psychological impacts, but noted that many children tend to follow their parents’ feelings about mask wearing.

“If the parents don’t like it, it seems the children don’t like it,” he said.

Jan Brainard noted that the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that everyone in schools wear masks this year regardless of vaccination status.

“I personally believe having been a pediatrician nurse that pediatricians would not have recommended anything that would be harmful to children,” she said.

“Our intention is not to be divisive,” Muramoto said. “I really believe that everybody on this board is wanting to focus on what is the best interest of the kids.”

Muramoto and Fielding both cited a need to balance COVID-19 risks with psychological risks to children. Fielding said that at this time, she did not see sufficient reason to take away local control from school districts. 

Mullica discussed the difficulty of guiding her two young children through online school last year, and said she believes universal masking would be the best protection against having to go back to remote learning.

“At the end of the day it was not a mask that hurt my child, it was them not being in school,” she said. “We need our kids in the classroom.”

The majority of the 15 school districts under Tri-County’s jurisdiction already have some form of mask mandate in place. The order will not change the Cherry Creek School District’s plans, as on Friday it announced it will require masks for students in Pre-K through sixth grade and their teachers. 

Aurora Public Schools on Friday said that it will require students in child development centers, elementary schools and K-8 schools to wear masks. It is currently only requiring unvaccinated staff to wear masks, now all staff who work with children under 12 will be required to mask regardless of vaccination status.

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