Douglas County schools stay with COVID mask rule, even with a health-agency order no longer in effect

New Douglas County Health Board says it will consider an order curbing masking, quarantines in schools

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The Douglas County School District is still requiring masks, a spokeswoman confirmed, after a public health order mandating them inside schools and child-care centers dissolved in Douglas County. 

The Douglas County Board of Health met for the first time on Sept. 30 as the county continued to distance itself from the Tri-County Health Department over objections to COVID-safety rules.

Board members confirmed with county legal staff that a previous health order from Tri-County's Board of Health requiring people 2 and older to wear masks inside schools and childcare settings was no longer in effect in the county. The order dissolved in Douglas County once the new Board of Health met and assumed jurisdiction.

The Douglas County School District has so far followed Tri-County Health Department and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment guidance in its COVID-19 response.

The district has followed Tri-County Health’s masking mandate since it took effect Sept. 1, and a district policy says it will follow Tri-County Health and CDPHE guidance in managing common communicable diseases. Superintendent Corey Wise was not available for comment.

Douglas County formally left the Tri-County Health Department, forming a county health department, but will continue contracting with Tri-County for services through at least 2022.

The Douglas County Board of Health members took the added step of approving a motion stating it will not implement the former mask mandate moving forward, which they said would clearly communicate to Douglas County residents where board members stand on masking children.

At the request of public commenters, the board will consider an order attempting to curb to what extent Tri-County Health can require people to mask and quarantine. Several speakers said they worry the intergovernmental agreement between Tri-County Health and Douglas County gives Tri-County too much control in managing infectious diseases.

“If they want to issue a mask mandate for every individual school,” Centennial resident Karl Dierenbach said, “they’ll do it.”

Tri-County Health’s authority

County legal staff said state statute allows Tri-County Health to require COVID-19 quarantines in schools on a case-by-case basis.

Douglas County Board of Health President Doug Benevento said criteria for requiring quarantines in schools are laid out in state law and added that any health order can be taken to court.

“These are challengeable if they get them wrong,” he said.

A Sept. 29 letter sent by Tri-County Health Executive Director John Douglas to the Douglas County School District said schools and childcare centers “will no longer be required” to comply with the Tri-County Health county-wide health orders.

However, the health agency can still order a school to close, issue isolation and quarantine orders, and other measures to lessen spread in outbreak and high-risk settings.

“TCHD staff, as the provider of disease control and investigation services, will continue to provide guidance on controlling the spread of COVID-19 within our schools and will be available to answer questions and provide technical assistance to school leaders in Douglas County related to COVID-19 and public health,” the letter said.

The letter strongly encouraged schools to continue requiring universal masking for everyone inside school buildings.

School leaders must also keep up with reporting COVID-19 cases and outbreaks to Tri-County Health under state law, the letter states.

At the Sept. 30 county board of health meeting, district parent Miles Cortez asked the board to limit Tri-County Health’s ability to mandate masks and require quarantines.

He read a health order he said he wrote with an attorney, which would allow anyone who believes a mask negatively affects their mental or physical health to opt out of a mask mandates.

The health order Cortez presented would also prohibit Tri-County Health from requiring anyone to quarantine if they are not displaying symptoms of COVID-19 or if they have not tested positive.

Health board member and Douglas County Commissioner George Teal nodded as Cortez spoke. He made a motion to have county staff work with Cortez to draft a similar health order for the board’s consideration at its Oct. 13 meeting.

One woman who spoke Sept. 30 pleaded with the board, stating she supports masking in schools as the mother of an infant who cannot yet vaccinate for COVID-19.

Masking debates continue

At the Sept. 28 Douglas County School Board meeting, a spokeswoman said the district would look into any action the health board took regarding mask mandates in schools.

As with recent meetings, masking continued to be a fraught topic during school board public comment. About 20 people voiced opposition to masking mandates in schools while roughly 10 supported masking or mandates.

Owen Wicks, a 16-year-old sophomore at STEM School Highlands Ranch, said he has a sensory processing disorder that makes the feeling of touch difficult. He spends several minutes each morning adjusting his socks or getting a new pair altogether until they feel comfortable, he told directors.

“I don’t like when my family hugs me,” he said.

Masks “make my skin crawl every moment I wear them.” That becomes a distraction as he tries to learn, he said. Owen and his mother, Amity Wicks, said they could not find a doctor to write a medical exemption and his school required him to continue masking without one.

Owen, who called masks ineffective and mandates illegal, hopes to see mask mandates go away.

Other parents decried efforts to enforce masking in schools, alleging teachers required pushups from students who did not comply or took photos of unmasked students, and called it intimidation.

District parent Kelly Pointer called masking a minor inconvenience and thanked the school board for requiring masks in schools.

Stephanie Ford, a mother of two district students, said she was appalled by misinformation shared about virology during public comment and that data shows masking works in containing COVID-19.

“It is not your personal right to be a public health threat,” she said.

 This story has been updated to show masks are still required in the Douglas County School District.

Reporter Elliott Wenzler contributed to this report.

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