Masks will be required for the start of school in Steamboat Springs
Editor’s note: This article has been edited to indicate that it is the Routt County Board of Health, which is made of the three county commissioners, that makes county public health orders not the Public Health Department.
Students in Steamboat Springs will be required to wear masks when they return to school next week after the district’s school board approved the move unanimously in a special meeting Thursday.
The move is part of a coordinated effort among all the schools near Steamboat to require masks for everyone — regardless of vaccination status — to start the year to limit interruptions to student learning.
“I recognize masks are not ideal, but so is not being in school,” said Steamboat Springs board member Lara Craig. “I believe that this is the best option to keep our schools open to full in-person learning.”
Steamboat Montessori School and North Routt Community Charter School have each said they will require masks of everyone to start the year, and the board of Steamboat Mountain School is expected to vote on the same policy at a meeting Friday.
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“We wanted unification as well as solidarity in numbers,” said Michael Girodo, head of school at Steamboat Montessori, where they held multiple meetings to discuss masks. “We’ve kind of done everything we can to get input, and this is the best decision that we see going forward.”
The Steamboat district had not made any official decision on whether students would be required to wear masks prior to Thursday, but the board indicated it favored an optional masking policy at a meeting last week.
But the landscape of COVID-19 has changed, with new local cases rising to 66 in the last week and a positivity rate of 6.8%, which is as high as it was in February. Rising cases of the virus across Colorado have a number of districts opting to require masks with some reversing a previous policy.
The Steamboat Springs School Board and district officials have been flooded with outreach from parents since last week’s meeting.
Superintendent Brad Meeks said he had received about 30 emails from parents prior to last week’s meeting. Between Thursday’s special meeting being announced Wednesday and the start of the meeting, Meeks said he had received emails from at least 70 parents.
Board member Katy Lee said the board has received more correspondence on masks in schools than any other issue she has dealt with since she was elected.
“We’re really hearing a lot from both sides, and it is clear from many emails, phone calls, public comments and conversations that we are a community divided,” Lee said.
Board President Kelly Latterman said the arguments for not wearing masks were primarily philosophical and about choice.
“You have the choice to make decisions for yourself and for your children, but when they negatively affect the health of other people and their children, that is when the choice becomes limited,” Latterman said.
While the Routt County Board of Health did not enact a public health order, the local Public Health Department “strongly endorsed” the move to require masks among all the schools in Steamboat, saying that new data from state health officials shows pediatric cases of COVID-19 are rising and there is concern for exceeding pediatric intensive care beds across the state.
“We are also seeing data this week from southern states where school openings have quickly led to a return to remote learning due to rising cases and outbreaks of COVID-19 among school populations,” reads a statement from Public Health Director Roberta Smith and Chief Medical Officer Brian Harrington, which was released after the Steamboat board voted to require masks.
The board reviewed the same four options that were presented last week ranging from all students wearing masks to masks being optional. Each board member said they supported requiring masks for all students.
Meeks said masks would help limit quarantines in the school, which he said were the most disruptive aspect last year for students, their families and employers.
The board made clear the decision was subject to change, and the situation would be revisited routinely throughout the school year.
“We will be reviewing frequently and working with Public Health to ensure that we continue to make the best decision given the current situation,” Lee said. “This will not be the last decision we make on this subject.”
The board did not take public comment, with Lee saying that after the correspondence the board received in the last week and the robust public comment in the last meeting, board members understood the arguments on both sides.
“We feel we have a solid understanding of the arguments put forward both in support and against a mask mandate and that public comment at this meeting would likely not give up any additional information,” Lee said.
Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, said there is no requirement in Colorado law that requires a school board to take public comment at any meeting.
The district has a policy about public participation at school board meetings that requires the board to take public comment at “some” meetings but not all.
“They can set those ground rules, but they can’t be discriminatory or viewpoint specific,” Roberts said. “In Colorado, there’s nothing in the law that requires (public comment in this situation).”
The masking debate has gotten contentious across the state, including in Steamboat. During last week’s public comment, multiple people drew comparisons between the Holocaust and requiring a student to wear a mask in school.
“This is appalling, disheartening and I hope that this type of rhetoric will no longer be freely spoken in our community,” Latterman said.
“I took on this role because I care so much about this community and educating our students,” Latterman continued. “What I never could have anticipated is the amount of anti-Semitism that lurks below the surface, and in some case is now out and open. This is something that I had personally experienced very few times prior to being elected as a public official. Now, direct threats, generally comparisons to genocide, and flippant comments comparing any aspect of the pandemic to yellow stars, no longer surprises me.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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