Eagle County Schools holds firm on mask-free decision after CDC alters its recommendation
Eagle County Public Health will continue to monitor local vaccination and disease rates before it alters its recommendations
Eagle County Schools is holding firm on its decision not to require masks in schools this fall, even as the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its guidance on Tuesday.
Despite earlier guidance to the contrary, the CDC on Tuesday recommended that localities encourage all teachers, staff, students and visitors in schools to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status.
However, on Wednesday, Matt Miano, the local school district’s chief communications officer, wrote in an email to the Vail Daily that the local school district intends to uphold the policies previously outlined by the district in early July. Among the policies was the exclusion of face covering requirements for students and staff.
“As of today, our plan is to continue to move forward without requiring masks in schools,” Miano wrote. “All decisions related to COVID-19 protocols are subject to change as the disease rates fluctuate.”
The district’s decision not to waver on its mask policy going into the upcoming school year was made with the guidance of local public health officials, something the district has done throughout the pandemic.
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According to Heath Harmon, the director of Eagle County Public Health and Environment, right now, the department is not making any immediate changes to the recommendations that are in place.
“(The CDC) is in a really difficult position trying to make recommendations for every American regardless of what community they live in. One thing that is really different here in Eagle County, compared to a number of other communities, is that we do have a higher vaccination rate and we do want to continue to push for a much higher vaccination rate,” Harmon said. “When you think about kids that are not yet eligible for vaccination, the best way to protect them from infection is make sure that everybody around them is vaccinated.”
Eagle County Public Health will continue to take into consideration state and federal recommendations and compare them to local trends. According to Harmon, what would cause the department to deviate from its current approach and recommendations is either new data on the effectiveness of vaccines or a change in the severity of COVID-19 cases, especially for the ages that cannot be vaccinated.
“The state health department, they are having policy conversations, so if they determine that they need to change the school guidance that they issued maybe a little bit more than a week ago, again, we’ll take a closer look at that,” Harmon said. Especially as it relates to the local trends and vaccination and disease rates that we have here.“
Arguing over masks
The question as to whether masks will be required in schools this fall has been quite the controversial topic this summer. Several groups of Eagle County parents have spoken at the past three Board of Education meetings advocating for no masks, no vaccine requirements and no social distancing for the duration of the 2021-22 school year. These parents have argued that their students’ mental and physical well-being would be at risk should these mandates continue.
While the parents’ concerns have been addressed thus far through the district’s back to school plan, all this is subject to change as local, state and federal public health orders follow data around disease transmission, vaccination rates as well as hospitalizations and deaths.
“I’m not saying that there won’t be a change, I’m just saying at this point in time, we’re not making a change to the recommendations,” Harmon said.
Overall mask guidance
On Tuesday, the CDC also updated its overall mask guidance, recommending that vaccinated individuals wear masks in indoor public places in counties with “ high” or “substantial” spread of COVID-19. According to the CDC’s COVID-19 Data Tracker, this includes Eagle County, which has a “substantial” level of transmission, meaning that there were 50 or more cases per 100,000 people over the last week.
According to Harmon, while the CDC data can sometimes lag by a week, the county has seen weekly incremental increases to the level of transmission over the past four weeks. Between Sunday, July 18, and Sunday, July 25, the county had 41 cases reported.
“The majority of the cases we’ve been seeing through the summer are in older youth, that would be eligible for a vaccine, and adults. Still, the majority of our cases are in unvaccinated individuals,” Harmon said. “We’re hoping we continue to increase those vaccination rates, that we’ll see that level off and stop increasing. That said, it’s safe to say that there is greater risk now of being exposed to the delta variant in our community than what there was four weeks ago.”
Currently, according to Colorado’s COVID-19 Vaccination Data, Eagle County has one of the highest vaccination rates in the state, with 83% of its eligible population having at least one dose of the vaccine. 74.9% of this eligible population is fully immunized.
COVID-19 testing in schools
Also this month, state health officials announced its plan to launch a new COVID-19 testing program for schools starting this fall. Under the plan, participating districts would be able to sign up for free weekly rapid tests.
However, according to Miano, the district will not be participating in any COVID-19 testing programs administered by the state. Instead, the district will continue working with local health partners to make testing accessible when needed.
“We will continue to monitor the metrics of infectious spread throughout our community as well as overall vaccination rates within Eagle County,” Miano wrote. “With high vaccination rates and low disease rates in our community, we don’t see a need for this program.”