Douglas County Says It Will Drop Out Of Tri-County Health Department Over School Mask Mandate

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Highlands Ranch in Douglas County, one of the wealthiest in the nation and once solidly Republican, keeps growing. As it does, its politics are changing too.

Douglas County’s commissioners gave initial approval Wednesday to split from its public health department — and form their own — over opposition to a Tri-County Health Department requirement that all students wear masks in schools.

In a reversal from a previous position, Tri-County issued a directive earlier this week that required its counties — Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas — to comply with mask mandate orders in schools. The mandate started today.

Tri-County had initially allowed the counties to opt out of the mask mandates, and Adams and Douglas counties took them up on the offer. But Tri-County reversed course because of the spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19. 

The commissioners will decide next week on final approval of their split with Tri-County, according to Colorado Community Media.

In the meantime, the Douglas County School District said Wednesday it will follow the most recent public health order issued by the Tri-County Health Department requiring all students and staff in preschool through 12th grade to wear a mask while inside school.

In a statement, the district said it continues to balance the challenges of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“Additionally, we will work with our families and staff members who cannot tolerate a mask due to medical or mental health reasons. Our goal is to keep our students and staff in the classroom for in-person learning,” the statement said.

The district said there are mask exemption forms available on the district website.

Protests against mask mandates among high school students were reported at several Douglas County high schools in Littleton this week. Colorado Community Media reported that students held signs that they will not comply with a mask mandate. Some signs read "I can't breathe" and "I can't do this again," reported CCM. Another sign read, “Listen to our voices, respect our choices.” 

The district confirmed that several schools were impacted, but that classes continued.

Nationwide, experts have said there are very few medical reasons that would exempt someone from wearing a mask. The Tri-County Health department Wednesday tweeted a University of Utah release dispelling the myths around masking. Experts there stated that there is no evidence that a child wearing a mask causes depression or anxiety. The release said that in settings of high mask use, in-school transmission of the coronavirus is less than 1 percent.

“Children and adolescents can spread SARS-CoV-2 to others when they do not have symptoms or have mild, non-specific symptoms and thus might not know that they are infected and infections," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When Douglas County schools opened in early August, there was no mask order. On Aug. 17, however, it updated its mask policy to require students in preschool through sixth grade to wear masks beginning Aug. 23.

The district issued that directive to align with a new Tri-County Board of Health public health order requiring younger students and the adults who work with them to wear masks in schools and early childhood centers. The health department order, which said it aimed to protect in-person learning, was in response to rising cases of the highly transmissible Delta variant. Masks for youth in grades seven through 12 were strongly encouraged by the district. Now all students and staff in all schools must wear masks in the Douglas County School District.

“We realize this adjustment to our COVID protocols may spark a range of emotions in our community from relief to anxiety to anger,” the district wrote in a letter to families.

Cherry Creek school district in Arapahoe County announced Tuesday that it will follow Tri-County’s new universal masking requirement. It said it will work with students to address medical exemptions, and if families make the decision not to wear masks, the website lists several online and homeschool options. 

COVID-19 cases among those ages 0 to 19 accounted for about 26 percent of cases last week, according to state health officials. Nineteen people under the age of 19 have died from COVID-19 in the state. Vaccines for children younger than 12 have yet to be approved by the FDA. 

School has barely started for most districts, yet outbreaks and quarantines have already struck. Just among schools within Tri-County, there were 15 outbreaks during the month of August

Gov. Jared Polis has stated there are no plans for a statewide mask mandate for students, despite concerns about the Delta variant’s spread through unvaccinated populations.

CPR Reporter Paolo Zialcitacontributed to this report.