Education

Mask Fights and School Outbreak Fears in Mesa County and Beyond

A look at a protest against Jefferson County schools' mask mandate earlier this month.
A look at a protest against Jefferson County schools' mask mandate earlier this month. Denver7 via YouTube
The 2021-2022 academic year will get under way at many school districts across Colorado this week, accompanied by considerable rancor over COVID-19 mask use. Multiple protests have recently taken place in Jefferson County, where the school district has mandated facial coverings indoors for all children under twelve, and tensions are so high in Eagle County, where indoor masking is required for all students, teachers and staffers, that the presence of law enforcement officers at schools has been increased.

The situation is complicated by the crazy patchwork of rules at districts statewide, as is made clear by the "Keeping Schools Open" plan recently released by Mesa County Valley School District 51, where classes are already back in session; they started on August 9. The document outlines masking recommendations from both federal and state agencies, along with those in assorted communities across the state. Yet District 51 has made masking optional, despite Mesa County having the highest number of confirmed Delta variant cases in Colorado.

Mesa County's overall vaccination rate is low — and stats included in the plan show that the rate for  instructors and pupils isn't much better, raising concerns about outbreaks that could result in potential school closures by the state, as mentioned by Governor Jared Polis during a recent press conference.

Many schools operated remotely for much of last year, and the impact of COVID-19 on educational institutions that remained open for in-person instruction was considerable, as seen in statewide data from the District 51 plan:
Number of Students Quarantined: 10,183
Number of Days of Lost Instruction: 126,189
Number of Students COVID-19-Positive: 1,293
Number of Cases (age 5 to 18) Where School was the Source of Transmission: 118
Number of Staff Quarantined (due to direct exposure): 811
Number of Staff COVID-19-Positive: 374
Nonetheless, District 51's "Keeping Schools Open" states that while "face coverings are still highly recommended for students and staff who are not fully vaccinated," they "will not be required for any D51 students or staff members. This includes all D51 facilities." But masks "will be required on buses, in compliance with federal law."

The vaccination rate among District 51 educators is higher than for Mesa County as a whole, according to a graphic in the plan that uses statistics from July 26. But more than 40 percent of staffers are not yet fully vaccinated, with that number rising to 45 percent-plus for nurses and health assistants. Here are those stats:
As for Mesa County student immunization rates, they're absolutely woeful: 21.1 percent partial or full vaccinations for those between ages twelve and fifteen, and 26.1 percent between sixteen and nineteen.

The plan synopsizes face-covering rules at nine other school districts in Colorado, and they vary widely. Some call for universal masking indoors, while others make it a choice. Here's a sampling of those regulations.

Adams 12
• Students: Masks are optional, not required, for all students.
• Staff: All staff are required to wear masks when in schools and district buildings regardless of vaccination status.
• Adult visitors and volunteers: All adults in schools and district buildings are required to wear masks regardless of vaccination status.
• Buses: Masks are required for everyone on district buses per federal law.
• Outdoors: Masks are not required for anyone when outdoors.

Aurora
• Masks will be strongly recommended for all students who are unvaccinated.
• All staff who are vaccinated will not be required to wear face masks at schools and district sites.
• All staff members who are unvaccinated will be required to wear masks in the workplace.

Denver
• Masks will be required inside school buildings for all DPS students, staff, and visitors, whether they are vaccinated or not.
• Masks will not be required outdoors, nor will they be required for vaccinated staff members who are working alone in their offices or workspaces.

Douglas County
• For students ages 11 and under: in alignment with local and state guidance, face coverings will be strongly encouraged while learning indoors, but will not be required.
• For students ages 12 and over: in alignment with local and state guidance, face coverings will be strongly encouraged for anyone who is 12+ years and not fully vaccinated, but will not be required.

Eagle
• Face coverings will no longer be required for any student or staff member, however, masks may be worn as a matter of personal preference.
• Mask use will be supported if individuals choose to wear them.
• Face coverings will not be required in educational spaces or activities, but may be necessary on school buses, due to state and federal travel requirements.

Jefferson County
• JeffCo will require masks for children 11 and younger.
• Children older than that are strongly encouraged to wear masks if they are not vaccinated and urged to mask up even if they are.
• Staff will have to inform the Jeffco district of their vaccination status by Aug. 16, and those who are not vaccinated will be required to wear a mask.
• Vaccinated staff will also be encouraged to wear a mask as well.
• Visitors will be allowed in the schools this coming academic year but will all be required to wear masks.

Montrose
• Masks are recommended for all unvaccinated students and staff, though mask use is not mandatory. School staff will ensure a climate of respect in regard to individual choices regarding mask wearing.

Roaring Fork
• All students will wear masks indoors (masks will not be required outdoors)
• Staff will wear masks in the presence of students
• Visitors are to wear masks while in school buildings
• Everyone will wear masks on school transportation vehicles
• Staff who have furnished proof of vaccination will not need to wear masks when students aren’t present.
• Once the following conditions are met, the mask mandate in schools can be lifted; When a school reaches a 70 percent vaccination rate for everyone in the building — including staff and students; when a community reaches a 70 percent vaccination rate; when the county reaches an incidence rate below 35 per 100,000 over the past seven days (currently that number is 94.7 per 100,000 for Garfield County)

Westminster
• All students, staff and teachers will be required to wear masks when indoors. The district has a stockpile of masks available for those who need them.

Click to read the Mesa County Valley School District 51 "Keeping Schools Open" plan for 2021-2022.
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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