Decision to require masks in schools this fall up to local officials
The decision on whether Routt County students will be required to wear masks when the 2021-22 school year starts this fall will be up to local officials, as new guidance from the state of Colorado is just that — a recommendation.
All state public health orders regarding schools will be allowed to expire at the end of July, and state health officials released guidance Tuesday they said is derived from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines released earlier this month.
But while CDC directly says unvaccinated individuals should be wearing a mask when in schools, guidelines from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment are more ambiguous. Instead of a direct recommendation, state health officials said districts should use a “layered approach.”
Officials said this is because vaccination rates vary wildly across the state and even in the county itself. While Routt County has been a top county for vaccination since the rollout started late last year, just 15% of residents age 17 or younger are vaccinated.
About 29% of middle school-aged children and 45% of high school-aged children in Routt County have completed the vaccine series, according to the Routt County Public Health Department. No elementary-aged students are vaccinated as no vaccine is approved for those younger than age 12.
This layered approach could include a mix of ventilation, mask wearing, COVID-19 testing, spacing, cohorting, symptom screening and hand washing, but state officials leave the decision up to districts or local public health agencies.
“The state recommends local public health agencies and school districts consider mask requirements for unvaccinated individuals,” the guidance says. “Even when not required … staff and students may choose to wear masks.”
School district officials in Routt County are meeting with local public health officials early next week to discuss the guidance and get recommendations about what this layered approach may look like locally.
“I am hoping to get more information next week from public health,” said Brad Meeks, superintendent of the Steamboat Springs School District. “I kind of want to hear from the other schools, as well. Are we going to treat these guidelines as requirements or is public health going to reconvene and issue public health orders?”
Meeks said in a meeting with superintendents from across the state earlier this week some school leaders expressed frustration with the state guidance because of the lack of clear direction. Still, he said superintendents in smaller districts felt they didn’t need a public health order and preferred to make their own decision.
Superintendents at both of Routt County’s smaller school districts, said they liked that the guidance left the ultimate decision to local officials.
“I am happy with them as far as giving school districts their choice and to work with public health on it,” said Christy Sinner, superintendent at the Hayden School District. “I am really truly hoping that we are allowed to make decisions for our school, and our students will not have to wear masks unless it is a mandate.”
Sinner said she would advocate in the meeting with public health next week that individual school districts would be allowed to decide what precautions are most appropriate rather than a county-wide order.
Soroco Superintendent Rim Watson said his district would follow any local mandates that are put in place, but he would prefer to not require masks for students.
“I am hoping there is not a mandate in our future,” Watson said. “I’m hoping it’s going to be left to the board to make the best decision for our students and that we are allowed to make that decision at the board level.”
In a Steamboat Springs School Board workshop Thursday, members of the board and Meeks expressed some frustration with the state guidance and the lack of clear direction.
“In my way of thinking, the local public health board should weigh in saying this is what is happening medically in our county, and these are the rules,” Meeks said. “I would rather have public health making health decisions and not having superintendents and school boards doing that.”
The guidance also recommends schools in higher risk communities take more precautions, and based on Routt County’s resurgence in COVID-19 cases, it would be considered a high-risk community.
None of the districts have made any final decisions on whether they will require masks for any students this fall but expect to in August before school starts.
In Steamboat Springs, this discussion will take place at an Aug. 9 school board meeting, though Meeks said he hoped to have more direction before then as fall sports are starting soon.
During summer school, Steamboat students, 11 and younger, have not been wearing masks, but unvaccinated students 12 and older have been, as that is what the expiring state health order requires.
“Whatever the public health order says, that is what I want to go with,” Meeks said. “If all those go away and they are just saying, ‘We are going to leave it up to every school district in the state to decide what they want to do,’ that is not a comfortable feeling for me. If everyone is going to do it different, is that really the right thing?”
The new guidance significantly changes how student quarantines would be handled, limiting the number of students who would be sent home if exposed to a positive case at school regardless of vaccination status.
If a county or individual school has a vaccination rate over 70% of those 12 and older, which Routt County does, students and staff would not need to quarantine following exposure. Students and staff would also not have to quarantine if vaccinated.
“Quarantines are drastically less, which is very beneficial for our students,” Sinner said. “We want this school year to be as normal as it has been in the past.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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