Eagle County Public Health to extend mask mandate in schools through Jan. 17
The extension comes as uncertainty around the omicron variant looms
As schools prepare to take off for winter break and ring in the New Year, many were hoping to leave mask mandates in 2021 as the current public health order requiring masks for pre-kindergarten through eighth grade students is set to expire this Friday, Dec. 17.
However, Eagle County Public Health plans to extend the mask order for an additional month, ending Jan. 17 — 14 calendar days (and eight school days) after students at local public schools are scheduled to return from winter break. The order will be officially approved and issued Friday, Dec. 17 at a Special Meeting of the County’s Board of Health.
Early Wednesday, Eagle County Schools’ Chief Communication’s Officer Matt Miano wrote in an email that the district will “follow the guidance of any public health orders issued by the county.”
With regard to vaccines, the district is also maintaining its stance that it does not currently have plans to require them for any staff or students, according to Miano’s email.
At Tuesday’s Eagle County Board of Commissioners meeting, acting as the board of health, the commissioners expressed support for the extension based on the recommendation of Heath Harmon, the county’s public health director.
“We’d love to be in a space where we could allow the public health order expire,” Harmon said at the meeting. “What this does is over school break, at a point in time where our youth, our children aren’t actually in the classroom setting, and for eight more school days, allows us to make a better determination at that point, whether we can expire that, or not, at that point.”
The current public health order requires that facial coverings be worn by all students, teachers, staff and visitors in all pre-kindergarten to eighth grade buildings. It was initially issued on the first day of school, Aug. 16, and has been extended twice since then, once in September and again in October.
The latest extension will allow room, not only for the community to understand any changes to the public health order, but for some of the current uncertainty around COVID-19 to settle, Harmon said in a phone interview Wednesday.
“One thing that we want to do is make sure, for our schools, our child care centers, our families and students, that they also have ample time to understand for changes, or more revisions to the one before we do let it expire,” Harmon said. “So in the event that we let the order expire on the 17th, we just wanted to make sure that the community had ample advanced knowledge of that potential.”
But, he added, “the omicron variant is where most of the questions lie right now.”
“We’re definitely learning more and more about omicron each day. We know it spreads more easily, we know that because it has a certain number of mutations that it likely evades our immunity — whether that’s from a vaccine or whether that’s from a prior infection — but I think the severity question that keeps coming up in the national media is one that isn’t fully answered yet,” Harmon said. “I think in time, we’ll understand really what the impact is of this virus in the real world setting versus some of the early research that’s coming out of the laboratories.
Not only that, but throughout the pandemic, the county has experienced a spike in COVID-19 cases following a holiday and the extension of the order gives public health “enough time to see impacts of travel and gatherings, how that effects the spread of the virus for residents,” Harmon said.
At Tuesday’s board of health meeting, Harmon noted that the 14-day time frame after school resumes from break is “the longest incubation period for this particular disease.”
In asking what the January deadline could hold, Harmon said he hoped that the mask requirement could shift to a recommendation at that point.
“I would say that actually moving beyond the health orders is something we’ve been discussing with our board of health since October. I think we do want to understand the severity of this variant and the impacts it has on our health care system,” he said. “In Colorado, our health care system is just now coming off of the delta wave, and so that’s important to ensure that these critical pieces of our community infrastructure are able to function at full capacity.”
On Jan. 17, Harmon said it comes down to two main options: “the order expires or we extend the order — I don’t think we’re considering adding any new provisions to the order.”
While many in the community expressed disappointment in the last-minute nature of the initial public health order in August, Harmon expressed Tuesday that this move would also give schools and the community more time to prepare for any potential changes to the public health order as it currently exists.
“We can’t go back and change how quickly we made the last decision, but we can certainly learn from it and make a better decision right now to communicate more transparently,” Harmon said.
Harmon noted that many of the reasons the mask mandate was implemented — primarily preserving five-day, in person school and keeping teachers and staff healthy and in school — remain true today.
“I still feel that we made the right decision, because the limiting factor for so many of our organizations is really workforce, and that’s true for our schools too,” he said. “And so if we’re really wanting to ensure that we’re hitting the priority as best as we can — (the priority) of keeping kids in school five days a week — we also have to take into consideration what that means for teachers and keeping them in school, keeping them healthy as well.”
Heading into the winter break, Eagle County is “moving in a good direction,” with lowering case rates and increasing community immunity, Harmon said at the meeting. For school-aged kids, vaccinations remain critical.
“The age group where we’ve seen a more significant amount of spread over the past couple of months has been in the 5 to 11-year-olds. So, having access to that vaccine for that age group is really helpful in preventing infection and slowing down transmission in the community,” Harmon said Wednesday.
In the five weeks since vaccines were approved for 5 to 11 year olds, 34% of those in this age group have had one or more doses of the vaccine. For local middle age students, those ages 11 to 14, 75% have had one or more doses. For high school students, or those ages 15 to 18, vaccination rates range between 96% and 99%.
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.