Colorado officials, from state legislators to school superintendents, face another very uncertain school year. With the rise of the delta variant of the COVID-19 virus—specifically among unvaccinated people—elementary-age kids’ infection and hospitalization numbers are rising. On Friday, Eagle County Public Health and Environment issued a Public Health Order “requiring masks for students, staff, and visitors while indoors at schools where there are large numbers of youth that are not yet eligible for vaccination against COVID-19 (e.g., K-5, K-8, or K-12).” While they are not mandating masks for children who are old enough to be vaccinated themselves (age 12 and above), they continue to recommend the use of masks to help mitigate the spread of the virus.
On Monday, Eagle County schools have their first day back. Colorado Public Radio reports that the conservative political football of anti-mask mandates has forced the Eagle County Sheriff’s office to send deputies to schools in the hopes of sparing children the anxiety that comes from having a bunch of maskless dunderheads screaming at you during a global pandemic. The sheriff’s office released a statement saying that they are not involved in checking people’s masks. “Our goal is the same as yours, getting our children back to school safely. Law enforcement is requesting that persons who are wishing to express their opinions, not interfere or interrupt the freedom of movement and the functions of the schools.”
Sheriff’s spokeswoman Amber Barrett expanded on the decision for the sheriff’s office to become involved. “The tensions have just been really high over the weekend since the school board announced they’d be requiring masks. There’s been quite a lot of chatter on social media, everything from trying to implement a walk-out to meeting up to in a specific location to gather and voice their opinions. We don’t have any threats of violence or anything of that nature.”
Until Friday, Eagle County schools were not going to have a mask mandate, but Superintendent Philip Qualman said the late decision came as numbers in the county continued to rise. Qualman and the sheriff’s office made it clear that they believe protesters have the right to be angry about public safety measures, but they do not have the right to make it more difficult for children to attend school. As spokesperson Barrett explained, “People are allowed to voice their opinions. They just cannot be impeding traffic or the flow in and out of the school.”
Eagle County’s Public Health Order comes with conditions for relaxing the mandate. If a school reaches an overall 80% vaccination rate “or the seven-day incidence rate for Eagle County goes below 50 per 100,000,” masks will remain recommended but not mandated. Eagle County joins Jeffco, Denver, Boulder, Westminster, Cherry Creek schools, Aurora schools, and Adams 12 in adding a mask mandate to the start of the school year. Aurora superintendent Rico Munn explained his decision to parents in a letter, writing, "There would be significant and negative impacts if large groups of students were required to quarantine for 10 days.” As with all educators, the hope is that by practicing the best public health practices available to them, Colorado schools will continue giving students in-person learning opportunities.
To put things into perspective, Eagle County public health officials looked at last year’s COVID-19 numbers and compared them to this year’s numbers:
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 3 cases being reported each day. With the rise over the past 9 weeks, the current incidence rate is 270 cases per 100,000 or 21 new cases reported each day.
CNN reports that as of Sunday, August 15, 811 new COVID-19 cases were reported in Colorado, while 85% of the state’s ICU beds were “in use.” Eagle County and a few other districts had held off for quite a long time, considering that the Colorado Department of Public Health recommended mask requirements for all unvaccinated students at the end of July. Eagle County officials had hoped that their very high vaccination rates among its vaccine-eligible population would allow them to feel more relaxed in their public health requirements, but, as officials wrote in their statement, “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.”