Routt County schools seeing less quarantines, more normalcy
Students in Colorado school districts that are requiring masks are getting COVID-19 at lower rates than schools that do not, according to data from the state health department.
In a media briefing Thursday, state epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy said since school started in late August, the infection rates among districts that didn’t require masks has climbed higher than those without mandates.
“The lower case rates are associated with districts that are requiring masks in schools, again, showing a clear impact that masks are helping in decreasing transmission in our school settings,” Herlihy said.
But while Herlihy has been a strong proponent of students wearing masks, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has stopped short of mandating schools to require masks, and local public health officials aren’t either.
That led local school districts to choose for themselves — the Steamboat Springs School District has required masks for students, and the Hayden and South Routt school districts have not. And so far, none of the districts are regretting their decisions.
The goal headed into this school year was to give students a more normal setting, and local superintendents believe they are accomplishing that.
County Public Health Director Roberta Smith said data from local schools is too small to find the trends state officials saw in their review. The state data is also imperfect, she said, because it doesn’t account for all schools in the state, excluding many that changed their mask policy after school started.
“Our schools are putting in place the measures that they need to do,” Smith said. “It’s not just masks. That’s just one layer in the whole piece of things — ventilation, air filtration, spacing of kids — all of that helps in the classroom, as well. It is just not masks or no masks; it is the whole kit and caboodle.”
Smith said it is becoming hard even to detect if a student was exposed at school because cellphone mobility data shows people have pretty much returned to normal. Where before a case may have a couple of contacts, now, they generally have many, making it hard to narrow down if the school was the source.
Of eight reported COVID-19 outbreaks in the county since the start of September, half of them have been related to schools, impacting 50 students. But Smith said many of the cases in schools have been related to sports and not the classroom.
“These cases are attributed to schools, but some of theses cases were the volleyball team, so it’s not classroom transmission,” Smith said.
Rim Watson, superintendent in the South Routt County School District, said they have had several conversations about requiring masks since school started but have not made a change. He estimated that 80% of staff and about 50% of students were choosing to wear a mask voluntarily.
“We did a ‘mask ask’ at the elementary school, where we sent an email to parents about how elementary kids cannot be vaccinated and put the information in front of them, and we’ve got about 50% voluntary compliance,” Watson said.
Watson also credited parents for keeping students home when they are showing any symptoms. There have been days with broad swaths of absent students, but Watson said that has prevented any potential spread in the school.
In Steamboat, Superintendent Brad Meeks said, at this point in the school year, he is confident the district made the correct decision to require masks.
“I believe it was the right decision,” Meeks said. “Quarantines are super disruptive to school and to families. People’s work gets disrupted when their children go into quarantine, so we wanted to be able to reduce that, and I think we’ve been successful.”
Quarantine requirements would be further relaxed if a school was considered low risk, which would require it to have a vaccination rate of 80% within the school. Meeks said none of the district’s schools were at that mark, but the district is stressing the importance of vaccination to hopefully reach that number.
Even though the district has had more COVID-19 cases so far this year than during the entirety of last school year, Meeks said the disruption to students and parents has certainly been less. He credits much of this to the district requiring masks.
In the Hayden School District, Superintendent Christy Sinner said they have not discussed requiring students to wear masks since the board approved that move before school started. So far, she said the district had 12 COVID-19 cases in the school but no quarantines.
“Students are in school, in-person learning as they should be with their peers,” Sinner said. “Overwhelmingly, our community is happy not to be wearing masks. … We have probably 25 kids that wear masks in the elementary and high schools throughout the day.”
Sinner said the school takes other precautions, like spacing students out, adding extra cleaning between classes and requiring students with symptoms to either get a negative test or stay home until they no longer have symptoms.
“It’s a very positive year,” Sinner said. “It’s really nice to just be able to function.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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Twenty months after the South Routt School District announced it would close because of a burgeoning coronavirus, COVID-19 is more prevalent in South Routt than ever before.