The walkout started when three students emerged from Legend High School in Parker and meandered toward a nearby park. Two more followed shortly after, and for a moment the small group was the only sign of protest.
Then came dozens, and within minutes, hundreds of students and parents had amassed across the street from the high school. They held signs calling masks child abuse, public health officials liars, and demanded masks remain optional.
“I can't do this again,” said one boy's poster.
Multiple student walkouts took place at Douglas County high schools Sept. 1 in protest of a masking mandate for students 2 and older in schools, which went into effect that morning.
The Tri-County Health Department on Aug. 30 rescinded the opt-out ability of Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties for a previous mask order that applied to children ages 2 through 11, and then expanded the order to include all children over 2.
Tri-County Health Executive Director John Douglas said COVID-19 is not making children severely ill in general but the health agency wants to help control the virus' spread to family and vulnerable people through children. The agency also wants to keep students in in-person learning as case rates are continuing to rise in the metro area, he said.
Public health experts including Douglas have spoken at previous school board meetings, stressing there is no evidence masks are harmful to children and that they are effective at containing COVID-19 spread, although those comments were usually rebuffed by anti-masking crowds calling for personal choice.
District spokeswoman Paula Hans provided a statement when asked for comment on the Sept. 1 protests. The district is balancing challenges from the ongoing pandemic and will follow Tri-County's health order, she said, which requires masks for students and staff in preschool through 12th grade.
"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," her statement said.
Douglas County commissioners on Aug. 1 voted to withdraw the county from Tri-County Health and create its own health department. It was not immediately clear what, if any, impact that action would have on mask rules in the Douglas County School District.
At Legend, Linda Potter attended in support of her freshman son, Michael Davy. Wearing masks last school year affected his mental and physical health by causing headaches, she said. Potter has an obligation as a parent to help Michael speak up for personal freedoms, she said.
“They are very passionate speaking with their own voice and their own constitutional right,” she said of the students.
Potter said she would support her son if he wanted to wear a mask, but Michael said that's not his stance. He does not believe masks are effective and said he noticed less social interaction between students after the mandate began that morning.
Michael did not comply, he said, and observed what he estimated to be fewer than 50% of students masking at Legend the morning of Sept. 1. Staff did not reprimand him, but his impression was some teachers were upset by his choice, saying he got “dirty looks.”
He hopes the mandate is repealed and said the latest health order angered him.
“Because we already went through this for one whole year and I don't want to do it again,” he said.
Zackary Taylor, a 16-year-old junior at Legend, also called masks ineffective and that he does not believe COVID is serious. His family contracted the virus and got through OK, he said, including his grandmother with health challenges.
Taylor believes everyone will catch COVID-19 at some point and that masking should be a personal choice.
“I do get that there are people who need to wear masks because of family members,” he said.
Protests took place at multiple schools in Douglas County on Sept. 1, including Ponderosa High School in Parker and Rock Canyon High School near Highlands Ranch.
Bryan McBride is an English teacher at Rock Canyon. In preparing the day before for expected student walkouts, McBride said he planned to support what he called students' First Amendment right to protest but would remain in the classroom to also support students who wanted to work on that day's lessons.
McBride estimated about 5% of people at Rock Canyon voluntarily masked before mandates went into effect this school year, echoing estimates district Superintendent Corey Wise shared for the whole district at an Aug. 24 board meeting.
“In our particular building, I think a lot of us did feel safe because our numbers weren't going up, even when they we going up in the district. We weren't seeing many positive cases in the building, so we felt kind of insulated,” McBride said.
He supports masking now to prevent Colorado from losing intensive-care unit capacity, like several other states are, and said he's trusting Tri-County Health's guidance when it comes to mandates.
The start to the school year has been tense, McBride said, and he worries about further spread of the delta variant along with continued disputes over COVID-19.
“I think already we are starting to feel tired and normally I don't think that that's something we experience in the third week of class,” he said. “It just stinks. I don't know a better way to put it.”