The Bayfield School District will start the school year Tuesday by flouting the federal order requiring masks on school buses.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began requiring face masks for people using public transportation as a way to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The requirement applies to school buses in districts across the country.
In Bayfield, masks are recommended but not required in district facilities, including school buses.
Mike Foutz, president of the Bayfield school board, said he is aware of the federal requirement on school buses. However, the district wanted to preserve a person’s right to choose “as long as possible,” he said.
“The federal requirements change on a regular basis, so as long as we can, we’re supporting people’s right to choose,” he said.
Amy Davlin, school board secretary, said she was not aware masking on buses was a federal order. When she asked Superintendent Kevin Aten about the policy, he said the definition of public transportation in the order was a gray area, Davlin said.
Aten and several board members did not respond Monday to requests for an interview.
The CDC order went into effect Feb. 1. The order emphasized transportation systems are essential, and requiring masks on transportation systems will protect Americans and maintain safe travel options during the pandemic.
“Trains, planes, ships and automobiles bring food and other essentials to our communities and to our homes,” the order says. “Buses bring America’s children and teachers to school.”
Some exemptions apply, according to the order. People do not need to wear a mask when they are eating, talking to someone with a hearing impairment, while wearing an oxygen mask on an airplane, if unconscious, and/or while being identified for transportation purposes.
As recently as Aug. 5, the CDC released more information about how the mask requirement applies to school districts.
Passengers and drivers must wear a mask on school buses, including on buses operated by public and private school systems. It applies regardless of vaccination status, location or the rate of COVID-19 transmission in a community, according to San Juan Basin Public Health.
The masking requirement for buses is stated on a Colorado Department of Education COVID-19 resource guide for school districts. The policy has also been disseminated by state and local public health agencies, such as SJBPH and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
The Bayfield School District transportation department website says it defers to the district recommendations about masking. While the district’s policy recommends masks in facilities, it made no mention of the federal order requiring masks on buses as of Monday.
SJBPH was not aware Friday of the school district’s plan to disregard the federal requirement, said Liane Jollon, the health department’s executive director.
“If we learn this is true, we will be surprised,” Jollon said Friday.
The public health agency said Monday it received a complaint from a parent and verified the busing policy with the school district.
“SJBPH reached out to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) leadership today (Monday) to inquire about enforcement for the mask requirement on school buses,” said Chandler Griffin, SJBPH spokesman. “SJBPH is awaiting a response with more information.”
For Hope Reinhardt, a parent in the school district, the district’s busing policy adds confusion to an already complex system of public health recommendations and requirements.
Her daughter, Alex, 14, also has a rare neurologic disease, Pitt-Hopkins syndrome, which could make her more vulnerable to a severe case of COVID-19. She uses the school district buses to get to school and on field trips, Reinhardt said.
“I have a responsibility as her mom to keep her safe, and so does the school. I can’t do my part as a mom if the school isn’t even doing the required things,” Reinhardt said. “... I get this is a hard time for everyone. I don’t want to put the school district in a bad light, but I want to bring this to people’s attention.”
The Bayfield School District does not plan to change its policy to come into compliance, Foutz said, again emphasizing people’s right to choose whether to wear masks. He is “not convinced” the noncompliant policy is illegal.
“I don’t think we’re teaching our kids the wrong things at all,” he said. “If anything, we’re trying to avoid more division in our community.”
SJBPH was not aware of the district’s busing policy because transportation is outside of its regulatory scope, Griffin said. Districts would need to seek guidance about the bus masking policy from CDE or CDPHE, he said.
Jeremy Meyer, CDE spokesman, said school districts should seek guidance from their local public health agencies.
“SJBPH is committed to the health and safety of all the students in our community and preserving in-person learning,” Griffin said. “If there is a gap here – there appears to be some confusion – we are actively trying to get information about this mandate and how it is enforced so that we can help the Bayfield School District come into compliance and have as safe of an environment as possible on their buses.”