No Masks Required for Students in Colorado's Worst COVID County

Outside West Middle School in Grand Junction.
Outside West Middle School in Grand Junction. Google Maps
On July 20, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment released its new COVID-19 safety recommendations for the 2021-2022 school year. Among other things, the CDPHE — echoing the stance taken by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — advises that masks continue to be worn indoors by unvaccinated individuals over the age of two, particularly in higher-risk areas.

Nonetheless, Mesa Valley School District 51, the largest school district in Mesa County — arguably the Colorado county with the worst overall stats related to the disease, including by far the most confirmed cases of the more transmissible and dangerous Delta variant — has announced that masks won't be required for any students or staffers, regardless of their vaccination status.

One grandmother of a District 51 elementary school student sees the guidelines as essentially making mask-wearing a choice for kids. "Two-to-eleven-year-olds are specifically unprotected and vulnerable to COVID-19, especially without masking and no vaccine available," notes the grandmother (we're not naming her to protect the child's privacy). "It is harmful lunacy to think that children can make decisions about best pandemic health practices."

Colorado's school guidelines arrived the day after the American Academy of Pediatrics offered its own recommendations regarding the start of classes this fall. Among other things, the organization advocates "that everyone older than age two wear masks, regardless of vaccination status."

As for the CDPHE, the department stresses that the state has adopted "a guidance model designed to empower local public health and local leaders to protect their communities using the mitigation strategies most appropriate to local conditions. The guidance does not constitute statewide requirements, but instead outlines evidence-based best practices for local governments and schools to manage the next stage of the pandemic."

The department suggests that schools in higher-risk communities institute "masking," "increased physical distancing," "serial COVID-19 testing," "contact tracing," "targeted quarantining" and "limiting high-risk activities." This is the CDPHE's criteria for determining higher risk:
The community has a vaccination rate under 70 percent among individuals age 12 and older.
The school has a vaccination rate under 70 percent among staff and students age 12 and older.
The community’s transmission rate is above 35 cases per 100,000 people over a seven-day period.
Mesa County checks all of these boxes. As of today, July 21, the CDPHE's COVID-19 data page counts 680 confirmed Delta variant infections there — more than double the county with the second-most cases (El Paso, at 321). Moreover, the department's COVID-19 dial dashboard reveals that Mesa County has a one-week cumulative incidence rate of 148.5 per 100,000, putting it at Level Yellow, and a two-week cumulative incidence rate of 303.4, rating Level Orange. The state's vaccine data dashboard calculates Mesa County's inoculation rate among residents ages twelve and older at 46.7 percent for one dose and 43.3 percent for what's characterized as full protection against the virus.

The CDPHE document adds: "The CDC recommends mask-wearing for all unvaccinated individuals age two and older indoors. The state recommends local public health agencies and school districts consider mask requirements for unvaccinated individuals, particularly in higher-risk environments. In addition, even when not required by local public health or a school district, unvaccinated and vaccinated staff and students may choose to wear masks. Schools and school districts should ensure that every classroom is a welcome environment for students and staff who choose to protect themselves in this manner."

Mesa County District 51's guidelines, made public on July 16, actually include this line: "Face coverings are still highly recommended for students and staff who are not fully vaccinated." But they go on to state that "face coverings will not be required for any D51 student or staff member. This includes all D51 facilities and buses."

Westword has reached out to several District 51 officials over the past two days, but has yet to receive a response. Click to read the district's "2021-2022 Keeping Schools Open Plan."
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts