Mask mandates are out in Colorado school districts.
Over the last two weeks, districts around the state have dropped their mask requirements or set deadlines to do so as local public health departments have also lifted their school mandates. Colorado hasn’t had a statewide mask requirement since May 2021.
The decisions come as COVID cases are in steep decline after a January omicron wave that tested schools — though with an average of 2,400 new cases reported each day, cases are still higher than they were in September when many Front Range communities adopted school mask requirements.
The change mirrors decisions in previously COVID-cautious blue states like New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Oregon that have also dropped school mask requirements.
“The health department, politics, and the public all seemed to be of a similar position that now is the time to take the government imposition of a mask mandate and make it parental choice,” said James Duffy, chief operating officer for Westminster Public Schools. “Of those three camps, it would be very difficult for us to swim upstream, so we decided to make it parental choice.
“We still encourage our staff and students to wear masks. We’re not anti-mask. We just need to focus on educating our kids.”
Some medical experts say it’s too early to safely drop mask requirements.
“So much of it is not based on the science but really on politics and philosophy,” said Dr. Sean O’Leary, vice chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ infectious disease committee and a professor of pediatrics at University of Colorado Anschutz Medical School. “People are done, and they just want to move past COVID. It’s a little too early to declare victory.”
Federal guidance continues to call for masks in schools, and states like Illinois and California are keeping them for now.
Colorado’s system of local control has resulted in a patchwork of COVID policies in schools. Some districts, like Westminster, started the school year with a mask mandate, while others adopted one as cases rose. Still other school districts adopted mask mandates when local public health authorities required them, while those outside the Front Range remained mostly mask optional all along.
A study by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment found that schools with mask mandates saw fewer outbreaks than those without.
Mask policies became an issue in last fall’s school board races. Pro-mask candidates generally prevailed in politically liberal and moderate communities, while anti-mask candidates saw victory in more conservative ones and acted quickly to end mask requirements.
In Mesa Valley District 51 on the Western Slope, a new conservative school board voted to end a policy that required masks when more than 2% of a school population tested positive.
Now even school districts and counties with stricter COVID protocols have ditched masks. Tri-County Board of Health, which oversees Adams and Arapahoe counties, voted Jan. 31 to lift its mask requirement, and most of the 14 school districts in its jurisdiction announced they would do the same.
Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said he doesn’t know what criteria he would use to lift a mandate if he kept one in place longer than Tri-County required it, and he didn’t want to place educators in the position of enforcing a policy that doesn’t apply anywhere else.
“From Day 1 of this pandemic, at least for us, we made a decision and a commitment that our ‘true north’ was Tri-County Public Health,” he said.
Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson said masking has required trade-offs, especially for young students learning to read and students learning English. Those trade-offs were worth it when schools had no other way to protect students, but that’s not the case anymore, she said.
“For a small child, not being able to see a teacher’s face or a teacher not being able to see a small child’s face, that did detract,” Swanson said. “School is a social thing.”
In addition to Tri-County, Denver, Jefferson, Larimer, and Pueblo counties have all lifted their school mask requirements in the last two weeks, though Denver’s change doesn’t go into effect until Feb. 28. Boulder County Board of Health voted Monday to end its school mask mandate, a change that affects Boulder Valley and St. Vrain Valley schools.
So far, Pueblo 60 has kept its mandate, though Pueblo 70, which serves unincorporated areas outside the city, has dropped mask requirements.
Adams 14 in the working-class Denver suburb of Commerce City is also keeping masks. The district uses its own metrics based on community transmission rates because the school district generally has had higher rates of COVID, with more students living in multigenerational households and more parents working essential jobs, than other parts of the county.
The district plans to lift its mask requirement when cases drop below 100 per 100,000 people, the federal threshold for high transmission, which could happen in a few weeks. Currently, every county in Colorado except two is still in high transmission.
Higher education institutions are also being cautious. The University of Colorado Boulder is keeping its mask mandate for now, as is Colorado State University in Fort Collins and Regis University in Denver.
While most children who contract COVID will experience mild illness, some get very sick. Fifteen school-aged children have died of COVID since the start of the pandemic, according to state health officials. During the recent omicron wave, record numbers of children were hospitalized with COVID, roughly two thirds of them due to effects of the virus.
O’Leary of the Academy of Pediatrics would prefer that school districts look at community transmission and vaccination rates before dropping their mask mandates.
“The problem we run into when we talk about schools is we don’t have vaccination coverage as high as we would like, especially for elementary students,” he said. “I would love to see the vaccination rates higher, before we make these changes.”
Just 31% of Colorado children ages 5 to 11 are fully vaccinated, a rate higher than the national average but well below the rest of the population. About 61% of children ages 12 to 15 are fully vaccinated.
That means COVID can still spread easily in schools, said Susan Hassig, a professor of epidemiology at Tulane University’s School of Public Health, with implications for students’ families, their own health, and the stability of in-person learning.
“The reality is that they’re going to be putting adults and children into a congregate setting for seven hours a day without any kind of source reduction or infection protection,” she said.
O’Leary acknowledges, though, that “the horse has left the barn.”
Last week, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment issued new guidance that would allow schools to treat COVID like other communicable diseases starting Feb. 28, guidance that largely follows what school districts are already doing. Scaling back quarantine requirements takes away one of the incentives schools had to keep masks in place.
In addition to the downward trend in cases, county public health directors point to optimistic state modeling, the availability of vaccines for children ages 5 and up, and a high level of immunity, whether from vaccination or recent illness.
“I don’t think we’re going to see a spike in cases,” said Bob McDonald, executive director of Denver Public Health and Environment. “People who are vaccinated and boosted have very little to worry about. People who are immunocompromised need to make educated decisions, but we can’t wear face coverings forever.”
Like many parents, Azucena Rubio has mixed feelings. She doesn’t think masks have affected her children’s learning or socialization in Jeffco Public Schools, but she expects them to be happier without face coverings, especially her 10-year-old, who complains that masks are itchy.
But she’s not sure now is the time.
“By not having the masks, we’re not being as careful as we could be,” she said. “I want to get back to normal, but I do wonder if it’s really over.”
Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at firstname.lastname@example.org.