Tri-County Health investigating mask compliance in Douglas County schools

Complaints and comments allege violations of mandate at some campuses


Comments about masking students and complaints alleging some Douglas County schools are falling out of compliance with a local mask mandate are pouring in, according to the local health department.

The health agency serving Douglas, Arapahoe and Adams counties was preparing to contact four schools in Douglas County on Sept. 9 after receiving complaints alleging noncompliance with a mask mandate for all people 2 and older inside schools, Tri-County Health's public affairs officer Mellissa Sager said.

The agency declined to specify which schools it is contacting because staff are still determining whether any violations occurred. The agency also declined to say whether the schools are district-run or charter schools.

Tri-County Health staff are continuing to process submissions to learn more information about allegations of noncompliance, and to sort out formal complaints from general comments about masking in schools.

Tri-County Health operates on a complaint-based system when it comes to enforcing health orders. Once a complaint is received, TCHD staff focus on making sure entities are aware of the health order, understand its requirements and know they can talk with Tri-County Health about any concerns they have with following it.

“We are education first, always. We are not interested in penalizing, especially our critical schools and childcares,” Sager said.

To help inform people, the agency has updated its COVID-19 dashboard with pediatric data, something Sager said was widely requested from community members.

COVID-19 incidence rates among children ages 6 to 11 in Tri-County Health's jurisdiction skyrocketed in the latter half of August and rose across all pediatric age groups. Douglas County's trends mirrored the entire jurisdiction's.

The Douglas County School District had 17 active outbreaks as of Sept. 3. Outbreaks by district are updated on the dashboard every Friday. By comparison, Cherry Creek Schools enrolls approximately 54,000 students and reported one outbreak. DCSD enrolls nearly 63,000 students. Other smaller metro-area districts in Tri-County Health's jurisdiction were reporting between one and three active outbreaks for the fall 2021 semester.

“We think that this is a small lift that we can easily make to keep people safe and keep kids in school,” Sager said.

Masking mandate still applies

Confusion has shrouded the public health order in recent days as Douglas County commissioners are rapidly working to withdraw from Tri-County Health.

Commissioners have sparred with the health agency about COVID-19 mitigation strategies throughout the pandemic. The dispute reached another boiling point when the health agency removed counties' ability to opt out of the masking mandate for schools and childcare centers.

Douglas County considered that a breach in an agreement it reached with Tri-County Health earlier in the pandemic, in which the health agency agreed to let counties opt out of health orders.

But the split is not official yet, and the county remains within Tri-County Health's jurisdiction at this time.

Sager said the masking order is in effect locally until the proposed Douglas County health department has seated its new health board and those directors can meet. She said that was likely to happen at the commissioners' Sept. 14 meeting. An agenda was not yet available at press time.

When the new health board can meet, the order will no longer exist in Douglas County and the new board would have deciding power over future health orders.

“It is tough, because I know people are confused right now,” Sager said.

Douglas County Schools Superintendent Corey Wise sent a letter to the community Sept. 7 saying Tri-County Health still has jurisdiction over the school district and that DCSD is obligated to follow the mask order.

“If a student refuses to wear a face covering and does not have a signed medical exemption from mask wearing, we will have no choice but to implement stricter enforcement of the public health order in our schools,” Wise wrote.

If a student continually refuses to wear a mask, they might be transferred to remote learning, the letter said. Wise stressed Tri-County Health could direct a school to quarantine people or conduct remote learning — for a class, team, grade level or entire school — if an outbreak occurs.

Wise was not immediately available to comment for this story.

A contentious debate

Masks have remained a contentious issue in Douglas County.

Dozens of people have spent hours in public comment at school board and county board meetings calling for an end to mask mandates. Hundreds of students at district high schools protested the health order the day it went into effect. Parents have threatened to pull their children from the district if mandates remain, and others have stated they would not comply.

Kady Dieker said she moved her first-grade son from Littleton Public Schools to a Douglas County charter school in hopes the county commissioners' decisions would mean he could go to school without masking.

“It breaks my heart to even think that we are here as parents,” she said.

But the mandate is welcome news to other students and parents.

Heidi Reasoner is an immunocompromised teacher at Douglas County's Ponderosa High School who said she noticed more compliance with masking after Wise's letter. She estimated that her daughter, a Sedalia Elementary student, was one of roughly 10% of students masking before a mandate went into effect.

“I was pretty relieved when the district starting mandating it,” she said.

Sager implored people to continue masking, saying the science supporting the benefits of face coverings has not changed. People should wear face coverings in indoor public settings and get vaccinated, she said.

“The politics just doesn't change any of that, not only within our schools but the community at large,” she said.


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