A back-to-school town hall meeting put on by the Douglas County School District on Aug. 4 quickly turned raucous as district leaders attempted to outline the district’s plans for mitigating COVID-19 this school year.
The crowd first erupted with boos when Superintendent Corey Wise displayed a slide saying the district is recommending universal masking when school begins the week of Aug. 9.
That opened a contentious meeting where many attendees called for an end to pandemic precautions and refuted COVID-19 science, such as the validity of testing and efficacy of face coverings.
DCSD is among school districts across metro Denver and beyond that have been revising mask-wearing policies and other rules to address the threat of COVID-19 as the new school year approaches. And frequently, those policies have met with strong objections from many -- some feeling the rules go too far and some saying they don't go far enough.
Some nearby districts, such as Denver, Jeffco and Englewood, have announced mask-wearing requirements in schools, while others, like DCSD, are strongly urging that they be used.
After the initial uproar at the town hall, Wise paused his presentation and stepped to the side of the stage, waiting for audience members to quiet.
Some people cried out, “Child abuse”; shouted, “It’s not going to happen” about masks; and called Wise a liar. One woman yelled above the crowd, “Let’s hear him out,” and the room calmed shortly after.
That’s when Wise said, “I going to be blunt, if you can’t handle the ‘how,’” — a reference to DCSD’s plans for containing COVID’s spread — “you need to take a look at your own self in the mirror.” The remark immediately prompted a furor throughout the room.
The Aug. 4 event took place in an auditorium at Rock Canyon High School in east Highlands Ranch. Throughout the evening, Wise stopped his presentation repeatedly as people peppered him with comments and questions regarding COVID-19 mitigation strategies.
Some in the audience said COVID-19 data is faulty, lamented the mental health strains COVID placed on children and laughed when Wise said the district is listening to “medical experts” in its planning.
“If we’re going to keep this up, were going to dim the lights, we’re going to end it. We’ll put out a communication, you can have it that way. I need your help. I need your help here,” Wise said.
At one point, Wise implored a man to let him finish the presentation and told attendees they could call him individually later. He tried to quell the group’s anger by clarifying that DCSD is recommending masks, not requiring them.
The superintendent started the town hall saying it was informational only. The presentation would not feature a Q&A portion and people could submit questions online afterwards, he said. But Wise changed course amid pressure from the crowd and took a few questions in the last 10 minutes of the town hall.
The first person asked if DCSD would incorporate critical race theory in its social-emotional programming. The district is making social-emotional learning a focal point in 2021-22 because of traumas students are facing during the public health crisis, Wise said.
Wise did not directly respond and said people should focus questions on COVID-19 protocols. (In past communication materials, the district and Wise have repeatedly said DCSD does not teach critical race theory.)
Another question was directed to the Tri-County Health Department’s executive director John Douglas, who joined the meeting remotely. Tri-County oversees public health services in Douglas, Adams and Arapahoe counties.
The speaker asked Douglas to go “on record” about the need for masks in preventing COVID-19 and disputed their effectiveness to cheers and applause. The man also asked Douglas to address his concerns that masks are harmful for young children.
Douglas said there is abundant information regarding the value of face coverings and that not all research is definitive. But he warned against the proliferation of misinformation regarding masks as well.
The narrative that masks trap bacteria and are unsafe for children “is a complete fabrication,” Douglas said.
That statement drew more boos from attendees, who also chided Douglas for saying the best source of information on current masking research is the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Masks do unequivocally benefit the wearer,” Douglas said.
Douglas spoke for several minutes about recent COVID-19 trends and DCSD’s approach for the new school year.
“I think it’s a well-done plan. It addresses the very few requirements that we have,” Douglas said.
Wise said wearing masks is required on school buses because of federal regulations. He said the district will issue letters when it learns of a positive COVID-19 case and ask close contacts to watch for symptoms, but will not require quarantine. Students and staff who test positive for COVID-19 will be required to isolate.
Douglas and Wise cautioned that the pandemic could force schools to change COVID-19 policies if spread worsens, particularly amid a surge of the highly transmissible Delta variant.
“We are in a fluid situation. We have been seeing case rates increase nationally, in the metro area, in Colorado and Douglas County. For example, in Douglas County case rates have gone up about 45% in the last week,” Douglas said.
Douglas said he does not foresee another general public mask mandate, especially in the next several weeks. People have been getting less sick thanks to vaccinations, he said, advocating for anyone who is unvaccinated to get inoculated.
Among Douglas County residents who are eligible for the vaccine, 73% have received at least one dose and 64% are fully vaccinated, according to information presented at the town hall.
Wise said the district will be holding more community forums. Future roundtables will be a better place for the community to raise questions about COVID-19, he said.
David Gould, a district parent and Castle Rock resident, said he came to hear leadership address controversies around critical race theory and the use of masks in schools. Gould called masks “a big issue” and dangerous for children’s mental and physical health. But he felt the district’s fall plan is reasonable, and said he was surprised by the audience’s response to Wise’s slide about masking this school year.
“I thought it was kind of an overreaction,” he said. “(The slide) says recommended; it doesn’t say mandated. If it said mandated, I think that would have been justified, but I think a lot of people jumped to that conclusion.”
Avery Myhra, a sophomore at Castle View High School, said she came to the town hall looking for assurances 2021-22 will bring back normalcy to education. She believes masks should remain a personal choice and hopes the district will stick with in-person learning. “It was a lot of ‘what ifs,’ kind of. Like, well we’ll see where the data goes. So that was a little hard because, you know, it’s ever changing,” she said.
The 15-year-old said frustrations with the pandemic pent up over the summer, and she understands parents are distressed making decision about their children’s education. Looking ahead, Avery hopes future community forums remain civil.
“I would just like to see more respect towards each other,” she said. “No matter what you decide or where you stand, just to see respect toward other people and their choices. Because I feel like there’s just been a lot of anger and frustration, and to remember at the end of the day we’re all part of one community and it’s important that we work together.”
A DCSD town hall just erupted in boos after superintendent Corey Wise unveiled the slide up there. pic.twitter.com/iWhGOavgyp— Jessica Gibbs (@JesstheJourno) August 5, 2021
A DCSD town hall just erupted in boos after superintendent Corey Wise unveiled the slide up there. pic.twitter.com/iWhGOavgyp
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