Mask debate comes to a head at final school board meeting
With only a few days left in the school year, parents and community members urged the board and district administration to remove the mask mandate
Tensions regarding the mask mandate at Eagle County Schools reached its peak at Wednesday’s school board meeting.
With only a few days left in the school year, nearly 40 parents and community members attended the meeting and nearly 20 voiced their opinions, both in person and via email, regarding the district’s continued enforcement of a mask mandate at the schools.
“We really appreciate your comments, I respect your bravery and your passion to come here and tell us what you think and how you feel about your kids and to see all these people advocating for your students and you students’ rights,” said Kate Cocchiarella, president of the Eagle County Board of Education. “It’s been a long time since we’ve seen protest posters and it just warms my heart.”
Eagle County lifted its COVID-19 public health restrictions May 19, more than a week earlier than originally planned. The decision was made with COVID-19 cases on a steady decline and vaccination rates on the rise — with more than 62% of the local population already receiving at least one dose of vaccine. This removed all local requirements for mask use, gathering and capacity restrictions.
The decision followed an announcement by Gov. Jared Polis, stating that fully vaccinated Coloradans are no longer required by the state to wear masks in most public settings. State orders regarding mask requirements for public indoor environments, including schools, remained in place.
Citing a lack of vaccination authorization for children under 12 as well as a CDC clarification that recommends masks still be worn in schools, Eagle County Schools kept its policy in place requiring students and staff to wear masks indoors while attending school.
In an email, Dan Dougherty, the chief communications officer for the district, explained the mask mandate remains in place for the remaining few days of the school year for the health and safety of others, “notably our 5,200 unvaccinated students, at risk.”
This decision prompted a group of parents and community members to urge the school district to repeal the requirement at Wednesday’s meeting.
“Schools should not be governed by compliance but choice,” said Krista Keiser, a resident of EagleVail and parent. “The administration and elected officials should be standing up to the governor of Colorado, the department of health and the Eagle County Public Health officials to fight for these students.”
Mask enforcement at school
A number of parents at Wednesday’s board meeting expressed their concerns, and in some cases outrage, over how the district and schools have enforced the wearing of masks in schools and how in doing so, the schools are infringing on student rights.
Largely, the discussion centered around one Eagle Valley High School freshman whose refusal to wear a mask in school last week resulted in his removal from the classroom. This student claimed to be berated and harassed by school administrators, staff and teachers.
At the board meeting, the student’s father, Travis Ward, spoke out about the matter, even playing a recording, which he said was of his son being “locked out.”
“He was removed from the classroom, his rights were violated, he was discriminated against and this has been going on for about a week and a half to two weeks,” Ward said. “I know this is about making people feel comfortable because we have graduations and parties and stuff, but our side doesn’t feel comfortable, my son doesn’t feel comfortable.”
According to Doughtery, isolating students is one of two options the district is giving students who don’t wish to wear masks. The other is that students may stay home and connect remotely. He noted that Eagle Valley High School currently has three unmasked students who are learning apart from the masked student and staff population.
“Unmasked students are not allowed to mix with other students, so if they attempt to enter a class, they would be turned away,” Doughtery wrote in his email to the Vail Daily.
Ward referred to this situation as “confinement,” and claimed the Eagle Valley school system was “rejecting kids because they will not wear a mask because they want to stand up for their rights, which they should be allowed to.”
Multiple other parents and community members referred to this incident in their statements to the school board. One, Jan Rosenthal Townsend, who said she doesn’t have kids, noted she was at the meeting in support of this student.
“Any person or student who chooses to not wear a mask should be allowed that basic human right,” Rosenthal Townsend said. “This gentleman has been denied his right to study in class, his right to study in his classroom and put in isolation and is now being bullied and ostracized by various students. This shouldn’t be tolerated.”
This claim of harassment or bullying for not wearing masks was made by a few of the parents that spoke at the meeting.
“We would appreciate knowing details about any incidents where students were harassed or berated,” Doughtery wrote in his email. “We certainly don’t condone that treatment and would like the opportunity to work with those families.”
In his statement to the school board, Ward also mentioned an incident with a middle school principal in which the principal allegedly asked students to wear masks outside, asked if they we’re vaccinated and said “You either social distance or I social distance you,” according to Ward’s retelling of the incident.
Doughterty said that the district followed up on this claim and found it not to be accurate. “At Gypsum Creek Middle School, in addition to outdoor recess, teachers have provided outdoor mask breaks, meaning that masks were not required outside if students maintained their social distance,” he said. “It’s possible that a staff member would have asked a group of students at some point to increase their distance, but certainly would not have asked a student about their vaccination status nor threatened to physically move a student.”
Other parents questioned the rights and authority of the schools to enforce the mask policy.
“The pandemic did not change the way the country runs, you do not have any special powers. You’re out of your mind,” said Robert Good, an Eagle resident and parent to two middle school students.
Adding challenges to a challenging year
Many of the parents and community members who spoke at the meeting also expressed a concern that masks were bringing about additional challenges for students in an already difficult year.
“Sadly but true, bad policy in this district and around the country is responsible for the mental decline of our students,” Keiser said.
Aside from expressing concern for the mental health of students, parents questioned the role of masks themselves in preventing the spread of disease as well as concern for additional detrimental health effects.
“Masks are unhealthy,” said Lori Diversey, an Eagle resident. “Besides the developmental cues children are missing out on, masks are anti-social devices and interfere with natural immunity.”
A few more days
Regardless of the input from those at the meeting, the district will uphold its mask mandate through the end of the school year, which ends June 3.
“We have put in 10 arduous, challenging months to get through this school year wearing masks. I’m over it just like you are, but I’m asking for five more days of mask wearing,” Superintendent Phillip Qualman said. “Yes, it’s an inconvenience, but at the end of the day, I am not willing to risk the fatality of a student or staff member in the last week of school. I can’t say that in any clearer language.”
Qualman also noted that decision was largely driven by the district’s desire to protect in-person graduations and end of year celebrations, and that it is decision held by all the schools in Eagle County — public, private and parochial.
Going into the next year, Cocchiarella noted that it is the district’s intention to have no mask requirements, return to a five-day a week schedule and be “back to normal.” But until then, she asked for the end of the year to end amicably, and with masks.
“We need to continue with the compassion, kindness and understanding, even for those that don’t hold our beliefs, just to the end of the year,” Cocchiarella said. “June 3 brings us to the end of this year, a very, very difficult year that has been challenging, not just for students, not only for families, but for the entire community, the entire country and the entire world. We have actually had it pretty lucky and easy here in Eagle County and I am so grateful that.”
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.