Douglas County is set to try to opt out of a public health order requiring masks for students ages 2 to 11 after all three commissioners confirmed to Colorado Community Media that they plan to vote that way during upcoming meetings.
“I appreciate the board of public health doing what they say their jobs are, and now they’re turning the public health order over to us,” Commissioner George Teal said, “And we’re going to do our jobs that we’ve been given by the people of Douglas County.”
In interviews with Colorado Community Media, the commissioners each spoke about their concerns for the impacts of masks on children’s mental health and development. The commissioners also spoke about seeing a lack of evidence pointing to a need for such a mandate.
“For us it’s not about simply an increase in cases — and we understand lagging indicators — but it’s really so much more about severity,” Commissioner Abe Laydon said.
The Tri-County Health Department’s board of health voted to approve the mask mandate for younger students — which allows counties to opt out — on Aug. 17 as a COVID-19 safety measure. If a county chooses to opt out, it is then up to the school districts and individual schools to decide if they will follow the public health order.
Following that order, Douglas County School District Superintendent Corey Wise said the district will begin requiring all students in preschool through sixth grade to wear masks when inside school buildings as a COVID-19 safety measure. The rule, which also applies to staff who work with that age group, goes into effect on Aug. 23.
The Douglas County Board of Commissioners scheduled two meetings to discuss the health department’s order, including an Aug. 18 work session and an Aug. 19 special business meeting. Commissioners typically have in-depth discussions during work sessions and give limited comments during business meetings. The public will have a chance to speak to commissioners during the special business meeting.
“At this point we are not seeing any peer-reviewed scientific research that would indicate that the delta variant is more severe for young people,” Laydon said. “So for us it doesn’t make sense to issue mandates prematurely, ahead of the science, ahead of the research.”
Commissioner Lora Thomas said she had hoped the public health order wouldn’t be approved.
“Imagine if parents are opposed to their children being forced to wear a mask and yet the child has to wear a mask in school. What does that do to the child’s mental health?” she said.
Thomas added that she’s seen evidence that the county and state are seeing an increase in demand for mental health support for children.
Commissioner George Teal said that while he understands where the board of health was coming from in approving the mandate for students 2 to 11, he disagrees with it.
“If any parents in Douglas County feel like having their child wear a mask to school is the best thing for them and their children, I support them 100%” Teal said. “This is all about individual choice.”
According to legal advice given to the county, the school district is not under any requirement to follow the public health order if the county chooses to opt out, Laydon said.
Teal said that he would be disappointed if the Douglas County School District chose to follow the Tri-County order.
“If the school district decides to adhere to the Tri-County health board, I for one will be disappointed and I think I might work with my colleagues to send a message to the school board,” he said.
Tri-County’s public health order was approved with six members voting in favor and two members, both from Douglas County, voting against. The third representative from Douglas County, Zach Nannestad, abstained from voting because he is an employee of Douglas County School District.
Douglas County’s two board of health representatives who voted against the mask mandate, Dr. Linda Fielding and Kim Muramoto, both spoke during the meeting emphasizing their concerns for children’s mental health.
Reporters Jessica Gibbs and Ellis Arnold contributed to this story.
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