Schools in Eagle County see COVID-19 numbers drop
Masks are still required in its Head Start classrooms, per a federal mandate
Since transitioning from requiring masks to instead strongly recommending masks, Eagle County Schools is moving forward with different precautions and with an endemic mindset.
According to Matt Miano, the district’s chief communications officer, COVID-19 cases reported by parents and staff have been steadily declining in the weeks since the mandate was repealed from schools, mirroring the community’s overall incidence rate trend. As a result of this decline, staffing levels have also started to recover from the spike driven by the highly contagious omicron variant.
While students returning from winter break in all grades were required to wear masks, the mandate was repealed at the district’s high schools Monday, Jan. 17, and for its elementary and middle schools after Friday, Jan. 21.
Following Eagle County public health guidance, the mask requirement was moved to a strong recommendation after these dates.
“Many students and staff do continue to wear masks and are supported in that decision as are those that have decided not to,” Miano wrote in an email.
While the district is not asking principals or buildings to track which students, or how many, are wearing masks, Miano wrote that some of the principals have estimated that over 90% of its students and staff continue to wear masks, while other buildings are estimating closer to 20% of its population.
At the Jan. 19 Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Philip Qualman said that the decision to repeal the mask mandate — like all other mask decisions made in the past two years — was met by equal parts support, opposition and indifference.
“We’ve got some staff members who are quite upset about it, and I’ve been visiting them individually,” Qualman said, adding that the goal in meeting was to explain public health’s rationale and “get them to understand that I have sympathy for their position, but as an organization, we need to move forward accepting that this is an endemic and try to work with them to make whatever accommodations we can so that they still feel heard and valued.”
Two parents spoke at the meeting expressing their gratitude that the mandate was lifted. Both also expressed their desire to never see a mask mandate in the schools again.
Moving forward, Qualman said at the meeting that the district will continue to adjust COVID-19 protocols when necessary, working with public health to make these decisions.
“Remote is still an option, co-horting is still an option, masking might still be an option,” he said. “We don’t want to use these things, but if that’s what the situation requires, we will do so.”
Miano wrote in an email this week that should any outbreaks occur, the district would start implementing precautions at a classroom level, keeping the affected group as small as possible.
Currently, with the mask mandate gone, the district is still relying on certain precautions to maintain in-person learning. Miano wrote that these currently include recommending masks indoors per public health’s guidance; mitigative efforts at schools, such as eating outside or in smaller groups, and social distancing when appropriate; and continuing to encourage that staff and students stay home when sick.
During the omicron-driven spike at the start of the semester, the district stopped updating its COVID-19 dashboard because the sharp increase in numbers made it challenging to update the dashboard accurately. Moving forward, Miano wrote that he doesn’t see the dashboard making a return “under current conditions.”
“With the increased number of COVID-19 testing sites available, along with the number of home tests that go unreported, it is increasingly challenging to accurately reflect the current case count within our schools,” he added. “Combine that with the reduced five-day quarantine times, and reporting lags from various state and local agencies, we believe the county level dashboard is the best representation of local COVID-19 levels.”
Masks remain for Head Start
However, the mandate does remain in effect for some of the district’s Head Start preschool classrooms. Because the Head Start program is a federal program, Eagle County Schools is required to follow federal mask and vaccine requirements.
Per the federal mandate, staff and students (ages 3 and up) of the Head Start programming and schools that provide the Head Start programming are required to wear masks, Miano wrote in an email.
The Head Start program is provided in 19 classrooms through programs at Eagle Valley Preschool, the Edwards Early Learning Center, Gypsum Elementary, Homestake Peak Preschool and Red Hill Elementary.
These Head Start programs are also required to follow a federal vaccine requirement, which required that all Head Start employees be fully vaccinated by Jan. 31.
Miano wrote that prior to the implementation date, the district’s early childhood education administrators met with staff to ensure the vaccine requirement didn’t further effect staffing challenges.
“For those that were not willing to get vaccinated, they were offered a teaching position in a non-Head Start program as staffing allowed and to date we have yet to lose any staff because of this. Those that did get vaccinated presented their vaccination cards to administrators,” Miano wrote.
The district’s early childhood department was one of the hardest hit by this year’s hiring and staffing challenges. Throughout the year, the situation has gotten progressively better — the district was able to reopen one infant classroom and one preschool classroom in January. And so far, these mandates have not exacerbated these challenges.
“While staffing continues to be challenging, our Pre-K staffing numbers have remained consistent and have not been affected by mask or vaccination requirements,” Miano wrote. “We do continue to see staffing absences affecting the early childhood education program.”
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at email@example.com.