The Tri-County Board of Health voted Tuesday to require students ages 2-11 and teachers and day care staff who work with those children to wear masks in schools throughout Adams, Douglas and Arapahoe counties.
Earlier in the meeting, the board voted down a full mask mandate by a 4-4 vote, with one abstention. The mandate for younger children and their teachers or day care workers begins Aug. 23, according to the motion shown during the virtual meeting. Counties, however, can opt out, meaning a school district can do the same.
The vote came a day after the board took 90 minutes of public comment during a virtual meeting that was attended by more than 2,000 people. It also follows about 24 hours after Jefferson County Public Health issued a mask mandate for all of its 84,000 students as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are increasingly on the rise.
In a summary of the public comment responses released Tuesday by the Tri-County Health Department, 62% of more than 12,000 respondents in the three-county region “do not support masking in schools under any circumstance.”
The issue of masks in schools has engendered strong and often emotional reactions from students, parents and medical professionals. Earlier this month, hundreds of parents protested mandatory mask policies for ages 3-11 in Jefferson County while dozens of doctors scolded Cherry Creek School District officials for not requiring face coverings for all students and staff.
Dr. Larry Schwartz, a pediatric critical care physician at Children’s Hospital in Aurora, was the lead signatory on that letter. During Monday’s public comment, he likened the renewed emphasis on mask use, just three months after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eased its guidance on face coverings, to a pilot turning back on the seat-belt sign “when a calm flight becomes turbulent.”
Schwartz, who has two children in the Cherry Creek School District, said pediatric hospitalizations are increasing sharply in parts of the country where the highly contagious delta variant is spiking.
“We here in the Tri-County area do not need to continue this experiment with our children — we know what the results will be,” he said. “I urge you to follow the advice of the scientists and doctors and implement a universal mask mandate in our schools before our students become my patients.”
Other parents in favor of masks in schools told the board it’s a small price to pay to avoid outbreaks, which could force schools to quarantine students or close down.
The Tri-County Health Department coverage area has a population of nearly 1.5 million people. Various school districts within the health agency’s footprint have taken different approaches to masks, with some requiring them and others leaving it up to parents.
The board also heard from parents who said that masks were “dehumanizing,” and causing children unnecessary stress and depression in the face of a disease that overwhelmingly impacts older people and the sick, many of whom have been vaccinated.
Since the pandemic started in March 2020, just a quarter of one percent of deaths from COVID-19 in Colorado has occurred among those 19 and younger (19 out of 7,292), according to state health data. Only three deaths were among kids nine and younger.
“When does it end?” said Tonya Lafferty, who identified herself as the mother of three kids in public schools in Tri-County’s geographic area.
She said more children have died of the flu in recent years than of the coronavirus COVID-19 in 17 months, and yet no mask mandates were deemed necessary then. During the flu season of 2017-2018, an estimated 643 children died of the flu. There have been 423 pediatric deaths from COVID-19, according to CDC data posted on Aug. 11.
“Do we mask our children for flu going forward?” Lafferty said. “What about the common cold? What about for potential viruses that show no signs or symptoms but could be there? When does it stop?”