The Jefferson County School District announced late Monday that all students in the 84,000-student district will be required to mask up regardless of vaccination status, following a mandatory mask order for schools issued by county public health officials.
The district said its mask mandate, for all students age 2 and older, goes into effect Tuesday — the first day of school.
The decision is a shift from the district’s previous protocols announced late last month that only kids between 3 and 11 years old, an age group that is not yet eligible to be vaccinated, would have to wear masks to protect against COVID-19. That partial mask mandate spurred a protest by hundreds of parents opposed to masking at the Jefferson County Public Health headquarters building in Lakewood on Aug. 4.
Masks in schools have become a highly emotional and politically charged issue across the nation and across Colorado, and on Monday night, the Tri-County Health Department was debating its own way forward on whether to toughen its policy on masks in schools.
That agency covers Douglas, Adams and Arapahoe counties — home to nearly 1.5 million Coloradans.
In its order Monday, Jefferson County Public Health cited rapidly increasing caseloads among young people for its decision to require masks in schools. It said the virus, driven largely by the dominant and more contagious delta variant, “is accelerating rapidly among the 5-11 and 12-19 age groups.”
“Further, among all age groups of children, rates are higher as we enter the 2021 Fall semester than they were at this point in time last year,” the agency said.
Jefferson County Public Health said cases per 100,000 people have gone up nearly 78% among kids age 0 to 4 from this time last year, 131% for kids 5 to 11, and 62% for people 12 to 19 years old. And it noted that vaccination rates among people 12 to 19 is lower than the rate among the general Jefferson County population.
The agency also ordered that unvaccinated faculty and staff in schools and childcare facilities, and unvaccinated students and adults participating in school-based extracurricular activities, undergo regular testing for COVID-19.
Health officials say masks are the best way for schools to avoid coronavirus outbreaks, which could lead to quarantines or school closures.
But opponents of mandatory mask use in schools point out that hospitalization and death from COVID-19 is still relatively rare among children and that masks have their own deleterious effects on students’ ability to learn by hiding critical facial cues and emotional signals that children rely on for their cognitive development.
And with more than 75% of eligible Jefferson County residents already protected with at least one shot, and more than 50,000 residents in the county with some level of immunity due to previous coronavirus infection, some parents have asked how masking young children would help contain the spread of severe cases of COVID-19.
Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, is requiring all students and staff to wear masks when school starts next week. The Douglas County School District, the state’s third-largest, is leaving that decision up to parents. Douglas County classes resumed last week.
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