Steamboat schools will shift to mask encouraged, not required model as soon as Monday |

Steamboat schools will shift to mask encouraged, not required model as soon as Monday

Masks will be optional at after-school events immediately.

As soon as Monday, masks will no longer be required — but will be recommended — in the Steamboat Springs School District after two unanimous decisions by the school’s board at a special meeting on Thursday, Feb. 10.

The Board of Education separately considered removing the mandate for after-school activities in the district and whether to make masks optional during the school day, approving both after lengthy discussion and public comment.

The request to reconsider the mask mandate came from the administration of the Steamboat Springs High School, which said the way masks are being worn in the school just isn’t working. Principal Rick Elertson said this has become particularly true at after school events, as neighboring districts do not require students to mask up.

“Are we really just kind of faking it right now? It sometimes feels that way,” Elertson said, noting that students sit together unmasked at lunch, but are masked and social distanced in the classroom. “I hope that is not inflammatory, but let’s be honest.”

Board members noted that they have received a lot of outreach from the community on the issue, with it being roughly equal from people for and against maintaining the mandate.

The initial motion for the meeting would have removed masks in school before March 7, but board members indicated they didn’t want to draw things out, suggesting they wanted a switch to a mask optional policy as soon as Monday, Feb. 14. But Elertson asked not to have a “hard stop,” allowing him time to ensure his staff were ready for the change.

Students are not in school on Friday, Feb. 11, as it is a staff planning day, which board members noted could be helpful to aid in the transition. Superintendent Brad Meeks indicated he would communicate with parents by the end of the day Friday when the district would officially make the switch.

The mask mandate at after-school events was lifted, effective immediately.

Masks have been required since the start of the school year, but vaccinations were just starting to roll out for the oldest students then. Now the high school has a vaccination rate of 73% among students, with the middle school not far behind at about 68% and elementary rates in the mid-50% range.

Elertson also noted that staff in the district are vaccinated at rates over 90%. Those same staff are seeing hallways filled with students with masks down, and policing the mandate has become a constant battle, he said.

“We could spend 100% of our day trying to enforce mask rules in our hallways,” Elertson said. “I recently came to Dr. Meeks because it has become unsafe in some of our venues after school. People are not listening to us anymore.”

Board President Katy Lee said she felt they had an opportunity now to change to a recommended policy because of declining cases locally and indications from public health officials that is expected to continue, a sentiment other members echoed.

“Based on the current state of the pandemic and the data available to us at this time, I am in favor of ending the mask mandate and moving to a masks encouraged model,” said board member Kelly Latterman.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is also expected to release updated school guidance on Friday that could greatly limit the number of people that need to quarantine in the event of an exposure, another consideration of board members.

The board limited public comment to 30 minutes, dividing the time equally for people wishing to speak in support of lifting the mandate and those wishing to keep it in place. There were more than 120 people on the virtual call at times, with some changing their screen names to reflect their position on the issue.

Some on both sides said if the board was to mandate anything it should be KN95 masks, which have shown to reduce the spread of the virus much more effectively than alternatives. Board member Lara Craig stressed that she wanted to ensure these higher-quality masks were still available in schools, despite the policy shift.

Meeks said these masks are available, with the district going through thousands of them every few weeks. He also noted the district still has about 400 people participating in weekly COVID-19 testing.

“Changing the masks from mask mandate to mask recommended, we’re still not going to stop our serial testing program,” Meeks said. “None of those other things are going away.”

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