Douglas County opts out of mask mandate, but school district to comply

Douglas County’s board of commissioners voted Thursday to opt out of the Tri-County Health Department public health order that requires masks for kids ages 2-11 in schools and day care facilities, though the county’s school district can maintain its own mask policy.

The unanimous vote came after four hours of public comment, during which dozens of parents — who sometimes cried at the podium — expressed their dismay at a public health order that many referred to as authoritarian and infringing on their freedoms.

The Tri-County Board of Health voted Tuesday to require students ages 2-11 and teachers and day care staff who work with those children to wear masks in schools throughout Adams, Douglas and Arapahoe counties, starting Monday.

Tri-County Health officials have said that counties are allowed to opt out, but schools and child care facilities can still require masks.

When asked whether Thursday’s vote means the Douglas County School District can opt out of the mandate, Tri-County Health spokesperson Becky O’Guin said “maybe” but pointed to the district’s policy that states “management of common communicable diseases will be in accordance with (the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment) and (the Tri-County Health Department) guidelines.”

She referred The Denver Post to the school district for their interpretation of the policy.

Douglas County School District representatives did not immediately respond to a request to clarify their interpretation of the policy, but school officials said Tuesday it would comply with the mask order.

Douglas County’s deputy county attorney Kelly Dunnaway told commissioners during Thursday’s meeting that their vote “simply means there is no order to enforce within Douglas County.”

However, he said, the county “lack(s) the power to prevent the school district, or any restaurant for that matter, from imposing their own mask mandate. Their house, their rules.”

Most of the Douglas County parents who spoke during Thursday’s board meeting said they believed Tri-County health didn’t have the right to tell them how to protect their children. One described the fight as the “civil rights issue of our time,” even going so far as to compare the battle to that of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.

Mask mandates in schools have stirred debates across Colorado — and throughout the country — as schools determine how to resume in-person classes as coronavirus cases surge due to the more contagious Delta variant.

School districts across metro Denver have enacted mask mandates over the past few weeks, including JeffCo Public Schools, which changed its this week from only ages 3-11 to everyone in a school building — students, teachers, staff and visitors.

Earlier this week, the Tri-County Health Department released a summary of the public comment responses it received ahead of its vote. It showed 62% of more than 12,000 respondents in the three-county region “do not support masking in schools under any circumstance.” More than 4,000 of those non-supporters were from Douglas County.

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