In their first public health order Friday, the leaders of Douglas County’s newly established health department declared that students, teachers and staff members no longer will have to wear masks in the 64,000-student school district.
The board of health also said no child “shall be required to quarantine because of exposure to a known COVID-19 positive case unless the exposure is associated with a known outbreak or otherwise required by superseding state or federal mandate.”
The health order comes after several tumultuous weeks during which the Douglas County commissioners withdrew the county from the jurisdiction of the Tri-County Health Department, after Tri-County imposed a mask mandate for all students on Sept. 1 in Douglas, Arapahoe and Adams counties.
Douglas County had been a part of Tri-County since 1966.
Many parents in Douglas County point out that there has been little severe impact on young people in the county from COVID-19 — only one person 17 or younger has died of the respiratory disease since the pandemic started 19 months ago — and that decisions about masking children should be left in the hands of parents rather than coming from a government mandate.
They worry about social or emotional damage that their children may be experiencing as a result of having their mouths and noses covered all day.
Board of Health President Doug Benevento said shortly before the vote Friday that he has “not seen clear and convincing evidence of the benefits of masking.” He said the burden should be on health officials to make the case for masks before requiring them.
“We have to demonstrate to parents that there are huge benefits (from masks), and we have to have the data to prove it,” he said. “I should have to be able to explain why the masks are necessary.”
Most of those who spoke at Friday’s board of health meeting, in person and online, thanked the county’s health officials for making masks optional in schools. Parker resident Tara Kohl, who has a third-grader in Douglas County schools, said she just wanted her child to have a “normal school year.”
“Thank you for being bold,” she told the board.
But J.B. Poplawski, also of Parker, said that although young people are far less affected by the virus in terms of deaths and hospitalizations when compared with people older than 65, “kids are getting sick, and the long-term effects (of the coronavirus) are unknown.”
And for the rare child who is killed by COVID-19, Poplawski said it means devastation for family and friends when potential protection in the form of a face covering is available.
“I hope it’s not one of my kids, and I hope it’s not one of yours,” he said.
Most school districts in the metro area have a mask mandate of some type in place, especially for younger children who are not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. Students who want to continue wearing masks in the Douglas County School District, the state’s third-largest, will be able to do so under the new order.
The public health order passed Friday, which goes into effect at midnight Saturday, states that if a parent or legal guardian of an underage student feels that a face covering has “a negative impact on that individual’s physical and/or mental health,” they can give to school officials a “written declaration” of their desire for a mask exemption.
The board of health added adults as eligible for a mask exemption in Douglas County schools during the meeting Friday, a class of people that were not in the original draft of the order.
While the order raises the threshold for enacting a quarantine because of potential exposure to the coronavirus, it also says that any child placed in quarantine in Douglas County shall have it lifted “after a minimum of seven days from exposure, if after five days from exposure they have a negative test result.”
The county will “attempt to seek voluntary compliance” with its order but may enforce it “by any appropriate legal means,” including a court order. A spokesman with the Douglas County School District said the district’s leadership team was still reviewing the order Friday evening.