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Durango School District 9-R has no plans to ditch its mask policy anytime soon

School board president shares frustration that public health agencies aren’t mandating masks
Ethan Wright, 14, and fellow Durango High School students wear masks in December as they take a science test. School board President Kristen Smith says mask mandates from public health agencies would help the district communicate how important masks are during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
May 21, 2022
Bayfield School District cancels classes, events after 20 teachers are exposed to COVID-19

Durango School District 9-R won’t be loosening its masking policy any time soon.

The school board discussed last week whether it wanted to rescind the districtwide mask policy, but board members decided now is not the time to remove masks.

Board members and administrators have expressed frustration with the lack of leadership from the state when it comes to mandated mask use.

Mask use has been required for faculty, staff members and students this school year at the district, but the onus of making and enforcing that decision has been placed on the school board and administration.

In the lead-up to school district elections in November, some new and incumbent candidates said mask policies are being left up to the school board even though board members are not public health officials.

“Keeping kids in school, keeping them in their routine, keeping them learning and growing in a safe and healthy environment has been our priority all along,” said Kristen Smith, school board president, in an interview Tuesday with The Durango Herald.

She said it would be easier for the school board if mask mandates were ordered by the governor, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, or San Juan Basin Public Health.

Mandates from public health agencies would allow the school district to better communicate the necessity of mask use during the pandemic, Smith said. She noted SJBPH’s public health guidance still strongly encourages masks in schools, but Smith thinks the language is not as firm as it was during the last school year.

Durango High School students change classes on Tuesday as they wear masks walking past each other in the hallway. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Chandler Griffin, spokesman for SJBPH, said in an email Wednesday that guidance, including recommendations for mask use, is provided to school districts from the state. He said San Juan Basin Public Health has asked the state to make its guidance for school districts mandatory.

“SJBPH and other local public health agencies have repeatedly requested that the State’s school guidance be issued by the State agencies as requirements,” Griffin said. “SJBPH has a Public Health Advisory in effect with strong language that local schools require masking at this time.”

The health advisory is a tool for schools and their boards to use in support of health and safety, which Durango School District 9-R has done, Griffin said.

“We applaud 9-R for doing the right thing and requiring masks in their schools, per the State guidance, CDC, and SJBPH Public Health Advisory,” he said. “Masking has served 9-R well this school year and we know the community looks forward to turning the corner on the extreme surge we are currently experiencing.

“Until then, SJBPH will continue working daily with 9-R staff on limiting infection and preserving health, safety, and in-person learning.”

Mask policies have been a point of contention for the school board, which attracted the ire of parents who disagreed with the requirements.

However, while the school board still receives inquiries about when masking will no longer be required, angry rhetoric about the policy has appeared to die down substantially, Smith said.

Smith said Colorado school districts set guidelines for safety and security for their public school buildings and districts have had that ability long before COVID-19 came about.

Smith said in October the 1999 Columbine High School massacre is one example of something that pushed the state to give local control to school districts so they can decide what’s best for the safety of their students and staff members.

Superintendent Karen Cheser said school district officials around the state are frustrated with mask use being left up to their boards. She said the mindset there is that if it is imperative to follow certain strategies, such as masking to mitigate COVID-19 transmission inside schools, then it would be preferable to have public health experts mandate those strategies.

That didn’t happen this school year, though.

“It put us in a spot where we just had to make the best judgment,” she said. “It was confusing because if the health department feels like it is imperative that everyone wear masks, then it would be easier for us if they just say everyone needs to wear a mask.”

Cheser said the masking policy will be dropped eventually, but not right now, especially as omicron cases continue to appear across La Plata County.

Bayfield School District, which has left masking up to students and staff members, announced Tuesday classes will be suspended for the rest of the week because of a recent community surge in COVID-19 cases.

Ahead of the 2021-22 school year, Bayfield School District said in a community newsletter that it welcomes and encourages mask use but has no plans to enforce it through any policies.

By mid-September, Bayfield had to close its middle school because of COVID-19 cases among staff members and students. In October, the school district defended its decision not to enforce masking.

Despite frustrations, Cheser said she is glad the school district has stuck to its mask policy because it has reduced the number of cases appearing in schools and “greatly reduced” necessary quarantines.

“We’re not seeing it spread in schools,” she said. “Because we are masked, we have had very few people who must quarantine based on any exposure at school.”

Quarantines of staff members and students are a result of COVID-19 exposures in which someone wasn’t wearing a mask, Cheser said. She said that occurs with some sports.

Even during lunch, where students may not be wearing a mask because they are eating, they are often seated 6 feet apart, or only have their mask off for 15 minutes or so, she said.

“If you’re not requiring masks, if students aren’t masked, if they are in any way near someone within that 6 feet and they’re positive, then anyone around them is going to have to quarantine,” Cheser said. “... You can have an entire class have to quarantine.”

Smith said the school district’s teacher and staff shortages have been intensified by the pandemic.

“We were already struggling for staff as districts are across our state and across the nation this year,” Smith said. “(We have had a) really difficult time finding substitutes and substitute bus drivers.”

Smith said schools are working with a “really skeletal crew right now,” and protecting staff members is a top priority.

She said she knows mask use isn’t fun, but masks have been shown to reduce spread of the virus, which can reduce the need to quarantine and switch to remote learning. Masks also protect students and staff members from other diseases such as the flu, which have made a comeback this year and are impacting teachers and staff.

Gov. Jared Polis implemented a statewide mask mandate in July 2020 that was dropped in June 2021, although current public health rules still require mask use in select settings.

Public Health Order 20-38 requires unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated people to wear masks in prisons and jails, homeless shelters, community corrections facilities and health care settings, according to the CDPHE.

During a Colorado Matters interview in December with NPR, the governor said he wouldn’t implement another mask mandate because of the wide availability of COVID-19 vaccines.

Smith said she takes issue with the responsibility being passed from state- and county-level public health agencies to volunteer school boards.

“We’re really just a group of volunteers, and that’s kind of where the buck has stopped at these decisions,” she said.

She said she understands where Polis is coming from in that Colorado has diverse communities of varying sizes, but if mandating masks isn’t going to be the governor’s call, “then we should figure out whose call it’s going to be.”

“I really believe it needs to be some kind of paid employee of the state,” she said.

Smith has heard the same sentiments from other school board presidents during school board conference calls, she said.

“If the governor wants to say COVID is over, that’s his choice and he’s well within his rights to do that,” she said. “But there are all these kids that need to go to school every day and someone’s got to figure out how to make that happen and what the best way to do that is.

“The kids are the governor’s responsibility, too.”

cburney@durangoherald.com

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