New Douglas County COVID Masking Rules: Crazy? Contradictory? Both?

New Douglas County COVID Masking Rules: Crazy? Contradictory? Both?
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
Late in the afternoon on Friday, October 8, to the surprise of absolutely no one, the board of the Douglas County Health Department, an entity that owes its existence to the county's political antipathy for safety measures related to COVID-19, approved an order allowing parents to opt-out of school face-covering mandates for their kids. But on October 10, the Douglas County School District, which has been resisting pressure from the county's commissioners to ditch masking rules, made it clear that masks are still officially a must at its institutions.

These contradictory messages are a recipe for confusion, not to mention more vitriol over a practice that seems to bother children a lot less than it bugs grownups with a very particular opinion about what constitutes freedom.

The October 8 DCHD document was signed by Board of Health president Doug Benevento, a former member of the Douglas County School Board's ultra-conservative bloc prior to his 2016 resignation; vice president Lora Thomas and boardmember George Teal, both county commissioners; Dr. Linda Fielding, a radiologist and associate professor with the University of Colorado School of Medicine; and Kim Muramoto, a registered nurse who heads Centura Health's trauma network. And while the text tries to maintain the patina of concern over public health, it's also filled with highly dubious assertions about masking.

After noting that as of September 30, "all prior County wide local health orders for Douglas County residents are deemed null and void," the document maintains that "the overall physical and mental health of every child should drive consideration of COVID-19 mitigation measures and that all available and credible COVID-19 data and guidance should be relied upon to this end."

At that point, however, the order ignores the many studies that argue in favor of school masking. Instead, it references Georgia research conducted by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found "while there may be a benefit to teachers from wearing masks," the "21 percent lower incidence in schools that required mask use among students was not statistically significant compared with schools where mask use was optional." Also cited is a claim by Professor Vinjay Prasad, an associate professor with the University of California, San Francisco, who's become one of the far right's favorite anti-masking pundits; he's quoted as saying that there exists "no scientific consensus...about the wisdom of mandatory masking rules for schoolchildren."

In the order, the board emphasizes that it "respects the unique circumstances of each family, that parents are almost always best suited to make health decisions for their children, individuals for themselves, and that current circumstances do not warrant compelled masking or quarantines."

It then states that "unless required by other state or federal mandate, certain individuals shall be exempt from any requirement to wear a Face Covering within Douglas County, if an individual aged 18 or older presents to any person or entity charged with enforcing and/or supervising such a requirement to wear a Face Covering, or in the case of a child a written declaration signed by the parent or guardian of the child, requesting to be exempted from the requirement to wear a Face Covering due to the negative impact on that individual's physical and/or mental health....No individual in Douglas County, regardless of age, shall be required to quarantine because of exposure to a known COVID-19 positive case unless the exposure is associated with a known Outbreak or otherwise required by superseding state or federal mandate."

Moreover, the order notes, guidelines from the State of Colorado or the Tri-County Health Department, from which Douglas County recently split, "are not to be interpreted as compelling any school district, individual school or daycare in Douglas County to mandate mask wearing on their premises, though such entities may elect to make such a requirement within their legal discretion subject to the exemption provided in this Order."

But in its October 10 announcement, the Douglas County School Board made it clear that little has changed from its perspective. "DCSD will continue to require all students, staff, and visitors to wear facial coverings inside our school buildings regardless of vaccination status," the release stresses. "There are exceptions, however, for those with either a medical exemption or an exemption pursuant to the new Public Health Order (a signed and dated declaration from a parent/guardian of a child under the age of 18 years). DCSD parents and guardians may submit their written exemption requests directly to their school."

Otherwise, it notes, "face coverings must be worn by all staff and students (regardless of vaccination status) on DCSD school buses in alignment with a federal CDC mandate, which is currently still in place. Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), anyone utilizing public transportation must wear a face covering at all times. This includes school buses."

Right now, the number of COVID-19 infections at numerous Douglas County schools remains problematic. According to stats on the district's data dashboard at the end of August, several facilities had significant spread, led by Chaparral High School, which counted forty cases between August 16 and 26; its most recent outbreak was declared resolved by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment on September 24. Right now, the hottest spot appears to be Mountain Vista High School, which notched 36 cases between September 28 and October 8.

No doubt state officials will be watching closely to see if these figures grow over the weeks to come.

Click to read the October 10 Douglas County Public Health mask order.
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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