Charters split on Douglas County Schools mask policy

Some continued to follow mandate while others maintain autonomy


Kindergarten teacher Megan Johnson walked her class single file down the hall at American Academy, keeping a watchful eye on each child. Every so often she called to a specific student, reminding them to straighten their mask and keep it on.

American Academy teachers like Johnson are tasked with knowing which parents want their child to mask throughout the day and making sure they do.

About a third of students at the school's Parker campus wore masks on Aug. 25, the third day of a district-wide mask mandate for preschool through sixth-grade students.

Families remain free to choose at the Douglas County charter school, Executive Director Erin Kane said, making American Academy one of the numerous DCSD charter schools splintering off from the district's masking policy.

Douglas County Schools' mask mandate went into effect Aug. 23 because the Tri-County Health Department issued a public health order requiring children ages 2 through 11 to mask inside schools and childcare settings, along with staff who work with them.

District officials said DCSD must follow the order despite the fact that Douglas County has opted out, because Tri-County Health is the agency authorized to issue public health orders and a school-district policy — called JLCC — says to follow health agency guidance in managing common communicable diseases. The policy applies to charter schools as well, district leaders said.

But not all charter schools agree, and some continued to make masks optional for their youngest learners. On Aug. 25, The Alliance of Douglas County Charter Schools and 11 charters in the district co-signed a letter to the Douglas County School Board disputing the district's stance that JLCC applies to charter schools, according to a copy obtained by Colorado Community Media.

"We, the undersigned, hereby respect the right and responsibility of the district to follow its own policies regarding its neighborhood school staff and children," the letter states, adding that mandating masks in district-run schools is DCSD's right. "We respectfully request that this board adopt the same respect for our right and responsibility to determine our own mask policies as we did last year."

School board President David Ray and Superintendent Corey Wise declined interview requests through a spokeswoman.

Wise issued a letter on Aug. 17 that said “neighborhood, private, magnet, and charter schools within Tri-County Health Department's jurisdiction all fall under this public health order.”

Board Vice President Krista Holtzmann said during the Aug. 24 board meeting that JLCC applies to charters unless they receive a waiver. None had requested an exemption at that time, she said.

“Each school, all of our schools including charter schools, at this point need to follow our DCSD policies,” Holtzmann said.

Different approaches

Kane, the American Academy executive director, said Douglas County's opt-out means the health order is no longer in effect locally, so there is no order for the school to follow, and she was surprised to hear district leadership tell charters to comply with its common communicable disease policy on Aug. 24.

“That is the first time we have formally heard the district say that they believe that JLCC applies in this situation, and it applies to charters,” Kane said.

Until this point in the pandemic, charters have had autonomy over their COVID-19 protocols, she said.

While the district fluctuated between in-person and hybrid learning models last year, American Academy conducted full in-person learning the entire school year, she said.

When the district required all students to wear masks, American Academy largely followed the state mandate and only required face coverings among students 11 and older.

“I saw very, very little spread in elementary,” Kane said.

At the preschool and elementary level last school year, five students tested posited for COVID-19 after being exposed at the school, according to data provided by American Academy. Another 73 students tested positive after being exposed in the broader community.

The charter school's board of education scheduled a special meeting for Aug. 30 to discuss waiving and replacing the district's policy.

Kane believes giving families a choice in masking is the best way to support a divided community, in which some people vehemently oppose mandates and others desire universal masking. School leaders throughout the state are in a “no-win situation,” she said.

“I've talked to parents who are scared for their medically fragile kids,” Kane said. “I've talked to parents who are terrified for their suicidal child.”

STEM School Highlands Ranch has a different approach from American Academy.

The school is closely following district policy, spokeswoman Nicole Bostel said. The school's board of education and legal counsel determined STEM is required to comply with the Tri-County Health public health order.

“I know other charter schools are saying that that's not the case, but we are going off of our board and our counsel,” Bostel said.

She likened the circumstances to how STEM would respond to a measles outbreak, in which Tri-County Health asked to quarantine people or send students into remote learning.

“We'd have to follow that order as well,” she said.

Bostel said there are “a lot of gray areas” and that the school is “doing the best we can” navigating legal and policy implications regarding masking.

Reaction from the school community was mixed between people who supported and opposed masking, she said.

“We understand that this is so frustrating for a lot of our families, and they may not be sharing their frustration with us, so it's hard to gauge how many of them are in favor and how many are not,” she said.

Nearly all students were complying with the policy as of Aug. 24, she said. Bostel recalled two to three students coming to school unmasked in the first couple days the mandate went into effect.

Masks are now part of STEM's dress code. If a student at STEM declines to wear a mask, the school asks parents to pick the child up. If a parent cannot get their child, STEM will keep the student in a nurse's office away from other students, Bostel said.

The school is also striving to keep kids focused on their schooling, and that means keeping them in in-person learning, she said.

After roughly two weeks of school, STEM School switched three grade levels remote amid an outbreak at the school. A Tri-County Health spokeswoman said the agency confirmed 13 cases among 12 students and one staff member as of Aug. 24.

School began on Aug. 10 and the exposures occurred before STEM's mask mandate went into effect on Aug. 23, Bostel said.

“If the masks help us keep the doors open then please, please, please, please just help us,” Bostel said. “It's not fun having to send a message out that students have to go remote.”

A parent's perspective

Charter school parent Dale Chu's 6-year-old daughter attends the first grade at Leman Academy of Excellence in Parker. The school is also making masks optional, he said. Leman Academy also signed on to The Alliance's letter.

Chu does not think the majority of children care much about whether they are required to mask or not. His daughter has fun wearing her mask. She enjoys picking one out the same way she likes picking out a bow to wear in her hair, he said.

Similarly, whether or not she comes home wearing that mask or that bow is a different story. Chu sends his daughter to school with a face covering but lets her decide if she wants to consistently wear the mask throughout her day.

Chu supports charter school autonomy for issues like selecting curriculum, hiring and firing. Autonomy is less applicable when it comes to public health measures, Chu said, also using measles as an analogy.

Chu works as an education consultant and is a former teacher, principal and district administrator, he said, lending him perspective both as a former educator and a parent.

The level of public discourse on masking surprises him to an extent.

DCSD's policy has prompted protests gathering hundreds of people and hours of public comment at meetings from those who oppose mandates. School board Director Elizabeth Hanson resigned as the board secretary on Aug. 24 but not as a board member because of the language used toward directors in emails about COVID-19 protocols. Hanson said processing the emails was harming her mental health.

Chu feels the rhetoric is boiled down to two polarized views — either that masks prevent death or infringe on freedom. He's not sure the benefits of masking are as bulletproof as their most ardent proponents believe, he said, or that the cost of masking on children is as severe as opponents suggest.

“This debate is so sharply divided on partisan lines,” he said, adding people will be upset no matter what policy schools follow. “This mask issue has become a mountain that's larger than the Front Range.”


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