Eagle County, district reverse course on masks in schools
Move comes just three days from start of school year
In a reversal from earlier messaging, Eagle County Schools announced Friday afternoon that masks will be required for all students, teachers, staff and visitors at all buildings where students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade are present. The masking requirement will be in place when schools open Monday for the year.
The district said the decision was made following a meeting with Eagle County Public Health and other schools throughout the community. According to Eagle County Schools’ Superintendent Philip Qualman, the change was made as a recommendation became an order from Eagle County Public Health.
“We’re disappointed at the timing, but we can’t control when metrics change, and we’ve said all along that we would be responsive to those changes,” Qualman said. “Even if it happens the Friday before school starts, we have to be prepared to pivot on a moment’s notice.”
Eagle County Public Health, in tandem with the district’s release, said the county will issue a public health order Monday requiring masks for students, staff and visitors indoors at public schools that include students who are not eligible for vaccines. The mandate will cover the inside areas of all schools as well as Edwards Early Learning Center (for students aged 2 and up). The mask mandate will also be in effect during middle school indoor athletics.
The county’s public health department said the decision is based on recently acquired data and disease trends. In local high schools, where students are eligible for vaccination, masks will remain recommended given the high rates of vaccination among these age groups.
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“It’s our understanding that the mask order is a mask recommendation at Eagle Valley, Battle Mountain and Red Canyon,” Qualman said.
The county’s public health deparment, in its release, expects to lift the public health order when the incidence rate falls below 50 cases per 100,000 for seven consecutive days.
The delta variant of COVID-19 continues to surge both locally and nationally, with Eagle County reporting three new deaths from the virus since July 31.
According to Heath Harmon, the county’s public health director, the county’s COVID-19 dashboard was updated Wednesday to reflect 26 local deaths since the start of the pandemic. The three latest victims were a female in her 60s on July 31, a male in his 40s on Aug. 6 and a male in his 50s on Aug. 9.
At Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting, where many parents spoke out against mask mandates, Qualman noted that all decisions would be made with the safety of students in mind.
“We will not allow in-person learning to be jeopardized by high rates of absenteeism or quarantines; if our data changes, so will our plan,” Qualman said at the time.
The school district said it made the move in order to maintain five-day-a-week and in-person instruction as well as to prevent the need for prolonged quarantines or transitions to remote learning because of disease spread.
“Our hearts go out to the families who were so recently affected by the virus,” Qualman said in the district’s release. “We said there were specific metrics we’d follow and when and if they changed, we would change our policies. Unfortunately, here we are. As has been the case since the beginning of the pandemic, this disease does not care about our schedules or when school starts. Nevertheless, we regret the short notice.”
‘We are hopeful this is a short-term scenario’
Families that would prefer their child not to wear masks may enroll in the district’s online school, World Academy, opt for home school, or choose another alternative setting outside of the district.
“We are hopeful this is a short-term scenario and that our community continues to get vaccinated and take care of one another. We ask for everyone’s cooperation and understanding as we navigate these unprecedented times,” Qualman said.
Masks will continue to be required of bus riders and anyone visiting school health offices.
The debate over masks have become commonplace at the district’s school board meetings this summer, and Wednesday’s meeting was no exception, with approximately 50 parents and community members showing up to speak during the allotted hour of public comment. Of these, only four of the nearly 25 that spoke wore masks, three of which advocated for universal masking in the schools, comments that were met by a round of boos from the crowd.
Given that backdrop, Qualman and district officials asked that any protests of the mask policy be directed at locations other than schools.
The district, in its release, stated that “it is imperative that schools begin on Monday without disruption or additional emotional stress on students and staff.”
“Please help us reduce the stress on schools by directing concerns to either Public Health officials who originated the orders, or ECSD officials who complied with the orders,” the district’s release goes on to say. “Please allow schools to open without additional stressors that only serve to compound and prolong the social/emotional impact on our children.”
On Wednesday, Qualman urged cooperation and kindness among parents leading into the school year.
“When this is over, we will all still be neighbors. We can’t let our differing opinions drive a wedge between neighbors,” he said. “Let’s finish as strong as we started and continue to cooperate for the sake of our community, not just our schools.”
The order will be relaxed if an entire school reaches an 80% overall vaccination rate or the seven-day incidence rate for Eagle County goes below 50 per 100,000. The order, which only pertains to masks, will be available online and take effect Monday — the day the district opens its academic year. Any developments will be communicated in a news release from Eagle County and/or updated on EagleCountyCovid.org.
Public Health officials worked closely with leadership from schools throughout Eagle County on Thursday evening and throughout Friday, as well as local medical and behavioral health providers to review the recent data and the increasing likelihood that current incidence rates might lead to significant disruptions to students and their education. As a result of those meetings, the group collectively acknowledged that it is necessary to require masks for students and faculty until transmission decreases or a high level of vaccination can be proven at the school level.
“The community goal of keeping our youth in school is still high on our priority list,” Harmon said in the county’s release. “With COVID-19 spread as high as it is currently, there will be significant numbers of youth that are testing positive or quarantined as a result of an exposure. If we want to keep our youth in school on a five-day-a-week schedule, masks should be worn while incidence is as high as it is. Reaching a lower incidence or assurance of high vaccination rates at the school level will mean mask usage will become optional.”
Data-driven policy decision
For context, the group of officials and school leaders reviewed the current disease incidence rate compared to this time last year. During the week prior to last year’s school start date, the community incidence rate was 38 cases per 100,000, which is the equivalent of three cases being reported each day. With the rise over the past nine weeks, the current incidence rate is 270 cases per 100,000, or 21 new cases reported each day.
The notable difference compared with last year is the availability of COVID-19 vaccines. Eagle County has a high vaccination rate among its age-eligible students. Eagle County’s rate for at least one dose for people aged 12 and older is now 85.7%. As of Aug. 12, the rates for youth aged 12-15 years is 70.1% and even higher for youth and young adults aged 16-17 (84.4%) and 18-19 (83.7%).
Public health officials noted that this decision was incredibly difficult given the elevated concerns among community members, both for and against mask requirements.
“It has always been our intention to find common ground and consider different perspectives,” Harmon said. “Currently, one of the largest health risks to our youth comes from missing school. We continue to hear from parents and our behavioral health providers that the most important thing we can do is keep youth in schools and ensure they have continued access to extracurricular activities that support their social and emotional needs. This is our common ground and the reason for this action.”
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at email@example.com.