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Douglas County health officials struggle with suspended mask exemption order

Douglas County health officials struggle with suspended mask
exemption order 1

The Douglas County Health Department on Wednesday tried to plot a course of action regarding its public health order — currently blocked by a judge — requiring the school district to let parents exempt their children from having to wear masks in class.

But after a two-hour-plus executive session, the board of health was unable to come up with a plan about what to do next. It is scheduled to meet again Friday — the same day a federal judge has called all parties in the case back to his courtroom.

In the meantime, a new school board is less than three weeks away from taking over the 64,000-student Douglas County School District. The Nov. 2 election was won by a slate of four conservative candidates who oppose mask mandates, and they will be the majority on the seven-member board.

One of those candidates, Becky Myers, said she doesn’t know yet what she and her colleagues will be able to do about the ongoing litigation over masks, given a federal judge’s decision last month to halt implemention of Douglas County’s public health order.

“I don’t think our hands are totally tied yet,” Myers said Wednesday. “Hopefully the seven of us are going to work together for what’s best for the kids.”

The new board of education will be sworn in Nov. 29.

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Board president Doug Benevento said the health department has three choices: rescind its order and issue a new one that passes muster with the court, modify the order in a way that doesn’t trigger a federal civil rights complaint or continue trying to defend in court the existing order as written.

“We want to make sure that all students have accommodation for all their needs,” Benevento said Wednesday.

To what extent accommodation should be offered to students in the middle of a pandemic is at the heart of the federal complaint lodged against the health department last month by the Douglas County School District on behalf of nine students with disabilities. The district argued that without universal masking, those students faced an elevated risk of catching COVID-19 and suffering severe illness or dying.

Opinions among those attending Wednesday’s meeting highlighted the basic fissures in the debate.

Centennial resident Miles Cortez, who has a child in Douglas County schools, encouraged the board of health to continue its legal fight over the mask exemption.

“There’s a way to allow these kids to access their public education without masking 64,000 kids,” he said.

He was countered by J.B. Poplawski, a Parker father of two, who told the board of health that it wasn’t just about preventing pediatric cases of COVID-19.

“We want our kids protected because we want to be protected,” he said. “Parents are dying too.”

The battle over masks in schools in Colorado has taken center stage in Douglas County, a conservative suburban county that has spent much of the past 20 months of the pandemic resisting public health orders from the state and the Tri-County Health Department.

A Tri-County directive in late August mandating masks for all students and workers in the district spurred Douglas County to break away and form its own health agency. One of its first actions was passing a public health order Oct. 8 permitting parents to exempt their children from having to cover their faces at school.

After the school district filed suit, U.S. District Judge John Kane issued a temporary restraining order halting the county’s mask exemption policy, ruling that it violated the plaintiff students’ civil rights under the Americans With Disabilities Act. On Monday, he extended the restraining order until Nov. 22, while scheduling another hearing on the matter for Friday morning.

The school district is still seeking a preliminary injunction in the matter.

Myers, a former Douglas County teacher, said she has heard from many parents angry over Kane’s ruling. She said she understands their concern that masks might negatively affect their children’s ability to learn.

“I can’t imagine teaching with a mask on,” she said.

In a report the World Health Organization issued in June for European countries, the agency concluded that “children and adolescents in schools are not considered primary drivers of transmission” of COVID-19.

The agency went on to say that although “precautions must be taken to control the spread of COVID-19 in the community … a balance must be struck between imposing such measures and ensuring that children are able to continue learning and socializing to the greatest extent possible.”

On masks specifically, the report stated that interim guidance from WHO recommends that children under age 6 should not be masked and for those 6 to 11 years old, “a risk-based approach should be taken, considering community transmission levels, ability to maintain physical distancing and ventilation.”

It did note that more contagious variants of the virus could alter that risk analysis.

As of Tuesday, the seven-day cumulative incidence rate for COVID-19 in Douglas County was 278.6 per 100,000 people, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers high community transmission and merits the use of masks. Meanwhile, 96.7% of intensive care beds are occupied in the county, according to data from Tri-County.

But Tri-County data also shows that only one child under age 18 has died of COVID-19 in Douglas County since the pandemic struck in March 2020. And in the past month, just four kids in the county have been admitted to hospitals for coronavirus infection.

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