South Routt school board resists request for mask mandate from medical officials |

South Routt school board resists request for mask mandate from medical officials

Sheila Symons’ son got COVID-19 around Labor Day. He has since missed about five weeks of school, spent five days at Children’s Hospital in Aurora and has seen more doctors than an 11-year-old child should.

“My son has missed everything,” Symons told the South Routt Board of Education on Tuesday night, at times through tears. “An entire basketball season, he hasn’t seen his friends; he hasn’t done anything fun in five weeks except cry.”

The doctors don’t have many answers, she said, apart from that it is related to her son’s COVID-19 diagnosis and that other children’s hospitals are seeing similar cases in young children.

Symons took to public comment to offer what she called a public service announcement so other parents are aware of what her son has gone through. She also asked the district’s leadership to consider a mask mandate.

“A mask could help. It may not, but it could,” Symons said. “Last year, they were healthier because they were in masks.”

Health officials from the South Routt Medical Center also asked the board to put a new mask mandate in place in the school, the second time they have approached the board with that request since the start of the 2021-22 school year.

Neither Symons’ story nor the health officials’ request spurred the board to consider a mask mandate.

When Dr. Barbra Novotny and medical center District Manager Ken Rogers finished their presentation, the board thanked them and moved on to the next agenda item without discussion. They did not return to the topic in the nearly four-hour meeting.

There are no requirements for anyone, vaccinated or not, regardless of age, to wear a mask in South Routt schools. The district recommends unvaccinated students and staff wear a mask but does not require it.

Since the start of school, there have been 42 cases of COVID-19 within the school, according to district compiled data as of Nov. 9. Five of the cases have been employees, 10 were at the high school, 13 were at the middle school, 13 more at the elementary school and another among preschoolers.

Novotny said when looking at COVID-19 tests conducted by South Routt Medical Center, about 30% of them are coming back positive right now. Last month, Rogers said COVID-19 had never been worse in South Routt.

It’s worse now.

This time last year, Novotny said the center was doing about 80 COVID-19 tests a month. Since August, they are testing about 150 people a week, about half of them children 17 or younger. The positivity rate among adults is higher than that of children tested, with children testing positive about 9% of the time.

The incidence rate in South Routt County is about 20% higher than the rate seen in Steamboat in October, according to county public health. The rate of vaccination in South Routt is 49% compared to the 79% rate in the county as a whole.

“I totally realize that (requiring masks) is really controversial and political, and I think it stinks that health care has to be political right now, because that is not my job for sure,” Novotny said. “Masking really can cut down on the spread of COVID.”

Novotny shared links and other data with the board, including information about the efficacy of masking. One study she shared showed that wearing a mask prevents COVID-19 five times more than using increased ventilation, a measure the school is taking to prevent spread of the virus.

Board members did ask Novotny and Rogers questions during the meeting, but none of them engaged with their request to put a mask mandate in place. The only question about masks from the board was about the negative affect of wearing one — of which Novotny said there are not any significant ones.

“Masking works, hand washing works, distancing works, quarantine works. They all work the best when they work together,” Rogers said. “We just can’t come up here and say, ‘Make everybody wash their hands, and this will all go away.’ It’s an all-of-the-above thing.”

Board member Colette Burris speculated that the increase in testing was because of people being more sensitive to COVID-19, but Rogers said if that were true, they would be seeing more negative tests. He said the opposite is likely true.

“I think not enough people are coming and getting tested,” Rogers said. “Anecdotally, we hear about folks who get exposed, should be tested, and they don’t come in.”

Burris tried to reassure the health officials that the board does talk about COVID-19 at every meeting with Superintendent Rim Watson presenting data to them.

“Every regular meeting we have, our wonderful superintendent provides us a COVID report with statistics and data,” Burris said. “We’re constantly discussing it.”

The board did not discuss COVID-19 among themselves, consider changing any mitigation protocols in the schools or address the recommendation to add a mask requirement during its Tuesday meeting.

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