Rising COVID-19 case rates in parts of the state prompted several school districts to reverse course Friday and require students and staff to wear face coverings as in-person classes resume.
Cherry Creek schools were first to issue the mask mandate Friday afternoon for students in pre-kindergarten to 6th grade and the staff in those buildings, including teachers. Within hours, they were joined by Adams 12 Schools, Aurora Public Schools and Eagle County schools, all of which were reacting to warnings or orders from local public health departments.
"There would be significant and negative impacts if large groups of students were required to quarantine for 10 days," Aurora schools superintendent Rico Munn wrote in a letter to that district's parents and staff. "Thus, in order to maintain our learning environments and keep in-person learning in place as much as possible, we are implementing a mask mandate for schools that have a majority of students who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated."
That mandate applies to students from PK to 8th grade.
The move toward masking started with a meeting Thursday by the Tri-County Health Department's board at which Executive Director John M. Douglas Jr. warned that schools would not be safe for students too young to be eligible for vaccine if face coverings were not required. That agency serves Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties, and while that meeting did not result in a new public health order, Douglas's stark admonition was enough to prompt districts to start taking action.
"I conveyed to them, as I have to you directly, that I felt that conditions in schools are presently not safe for unvaccinated children, particularly those below 12 years of age who are not currently eligible for vaccination without required universal masking," Douglas wrote in a Friday letter to Cherry Creek Schools Superintendent Christopher Smith. "We would also encourage you to explore all options you can within your school context as soon as possible to optimize high-rates of mask wearing, particularly in settings in which children under 12 are present."
Though cases have been rising in Adams, Douglas and Arapahoe since late June to early July, and both the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health department had issued strong recommendations for mask wearing in schools, only a handful of districts, including Jeffco, Denver, Boulder and Westminster, had taken the step of making them mandatory for an array of age and grade levels. Douglas's letter almost immediately changed that in Denver's suburbs.
"I have repeatedly stated that we will follow guidance from our health experts," Smith wrote to parents and staff Friday afternoon. "During a conversation with Dr. Douglas this morning, he stated to me that the conditions in schools are presently not safe for unvaccinated children, particularly those younger than 12 years old, without masks. For this reason, Cherry Creek School District will require masks inside school buildings for all students PreK- 6 and the staff who work with this age group. More than 90% of students in sixth grade are in this age group, so we will be requiring masks for sixth grade students until further notice."
Before the day was out, they were joined by Adams 12 and Aurora. After a public health order requiring masks was announced in Eagle County, that school district in the mountains followed suit, requiring face coverings for everyone in grades PK-8. District officials are already preparing for backlash.
"District leaders have heard from many community members on both sides of the mask issue," Eagle Superintendent Philip Qualman wrote to families. "Public input is valued and helps inform leaders of community expectations. Some will not agree with this change and may wish to express their feelings publicly. The district asks that protests be directed at locations other than schools.
"It is imperative that schools begin on Monday without disruption or additional emotional stress on students and staff."
Tri-County is accepting comments online and will hold a public hearing at 4 p.m. Monday to hear from parents or others with concerns in advance of a possible health order requiring masks in schools.
CPR's Jenny Brundin contributed to this report.
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