Face masks required for Douglas County schools, judge rules

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Douglas County School bus depot in. Castle Rock October 25, 2021.

Students and staff in Douglas County's school district will be required to wear face masks once more after a ruling from a federal judge Tuesday.

A public health order by the county’s newly-created health department allowed anyone to opt out of the school district’s masking requirement. The school district maintained the order limited its ability to quarantine people if needed. It filed its lawsuit last week.

After hearing from both sides, U.S. District Judge John L. Kane issued a temporary restraining order blocking the health department’s mask opt-out rules. It lasts until November 8, when he will hold another hearing. 

In granting the injunction, Kane concluded the public health order would likely cause “immediate and irreparable harm” to the district and its students with disabilities who have health conditions putting them at greater risk of contracting or suffering harm if they contract COVID-19.

“I find that the balance of the equities favors immediate relief at this stage of the litigation as it is in the public interest to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among students with disabilities in Douglas County and to protect their rights to be free from unlawful discrimination,” Kane wrote in the order.

The health department issued an order two weeks ago to allow parents to opt children out of wearing masks at school by asking for an exemption “due to the negative impact (of masks) on that individual’s physical and/or mental health.” The mask opt-out also applied to adults.

But the school district sued on behalf of nine students, saying the move violated the federal civil rights of vulnerable students, like those with disabilities. 

Corey Wise, the superintendent of Douglas County School District, said in a statement that the district strives “to do everything possible” to protect the health, safety, and learning of students, especially the most vulnerable and those with significant health conditions, who are especially susceptible to COVID-19. 

“Today's ruling allows us to do just that,” Wise said. “No parent should be forced to choose between sending their child to school and risking their child’s health, and no family should have to fear that their child may face life-threatening illness just to access their right to a great education.”

Wise said the ruling will allow the district to make schools safe for in-person learning.

“We respectfully disagree with the court's decision to issue a temporary restraining order,” wrote the Douglas County Board of Health in a statement.

The board said they remain confident that when they have more time to make a full case they’ll be able to demonstrate that the Douglas County Board of Health “struck the proper balance of public health protection and parental involvement in health care decisions for their children.”

“We would continue to encourage the Douglas County Board of Education to make partners of all parents in decisions that fundamentally impact their children,” the board said.

In its statement, Douglas County’s school district said as students return to classrooms after the conclusion of fall break, DCSD schools will return to the masking requirements and quarantining practices in place before the public health order was issued.

 “This means that all students, staff, and visitors in all of DCSD’s PK-12 schools will be required to wear face coverings, except for students who have documented medical exemptions from wearing a mask by a Colorado-licensed medical provider,” the district said.