Douglas County School District's new board drops COVID mask-wearing rule

Divided board, with 4 new members, votes 4-3 in hours-long meeting

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Masks are again optional in the Douglas County School District after a new board majority early Wednesday narrowly passed a resolution that prohibits the district from instating universal masking or COVID-19 vaccination policies.

The resolution, adopted in the early-morning hours after the board’s special meeting ran past midnight Tuesday, takes effect immediately. Implementation will be up to each school, which is also tasked with making individual accommodations for people who might be vulnerable to COVID-19.  

The resolution said the district would comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, which could require individual classrooms or activities to have mask-wearing rules around people at-risk of the virus.

Federal, state and local mandates would supersede the policy, district officials said.

Board President Mike Peterson -- among four board members elected last month as part of a slate challenging some previous district policies -- said the goal of the rule change is to provide students with a consistent, predictable masking policy and move to a system where individual accommodations are made instead of broad masking mandates.

He also urged respect for district staff as they shift to the new system and for people who will still need masking around them.

"Man, there better not be bullying around this thing,” Peterson said. "If you are a parent, you need to not bully."

The 4-3 vote was no surprise. The four new directors — Peterson, Becky Myers, Christy Williams and Kaylee Winegar — had vowed while campaigning to make masking a personal choice.

The new conservative board majority was sworn in on Nov. 29 and called a special board meeting for Dec. 7 in part to begin fulfilling campaign promises.

Winegar said her voted came down to masking efficacy. "There just is not strong evidence" that they prevent spread among children, she said. There is evidence, she said, they can be a detriment.

(In fact, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in a Nov. 5 advisory, said: "Due to the circulating and highly contagious delta variant, CDC recommends universal indoor masking by all students (age 2 and older), staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.")

Williams says she empathizes with children who are immunocompromised, but also cited students who have mental health struggles amid the pandemic, and young students trying to learn phonetics while masking.

"I think that we can do that I think that we can make this compromise,” she said.

The school board meeting was the latest of many in which masking policy took center stage.

Dozens of speakers turned out to address the resolution, many calling for an end to the district's  masking mandate while others pleaded for the board to uphold universal masking.

Aadithya, a high school student who asked to be identified by his first name only, told directors he was begging them to uphold universal masking and to respect students’ safety.

The new Douglas County Health Department, which opposes general mask mandates, was established for political reasons, he said, and he worried that the resolution did not follow Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment guidance.

“I think that’s a reckless decision,” he said.

People cited Bible verses both in favor and in opposition to masking mandates. One man prayed for God to give the board wisdom after asking for a mask-choice policy, to an “amen” from anti-mask mandate attendees.

Mother of three Katy Lute told directors who were not masking that she was glad to see their smiling faces. She came to fight on behalf of her daughters, she said, who feel safer when they can see their teachers’ faces. Masks mute children, she said.

“To those who want mask mandates, why do some of you seem to want a permanent mask mandate?” Lute said. “Why is the goal zero COVID? This is just unrealistic.”

Directors Elizabeth Hanson, Susan Meek and David Ray, who continued in their seats from  the previous board that supported mask rules, indicated at the meeting that they strongly opposed removing the district’s ability to mandate universal masking, calling it reckless and dangerous.

Ray has said he worried about implementing an optional-mask policy before conducting a feasibility study and without giving staff time to prepare to implement the resolution before it takes effect.

He felt significant angst, he said, that taking the approach of making individual accommodations will place a target on students who are vulnerable to COVID-19.

"If this drives segregation of our kids that are medically fragile, I'll tell you I will just have such issue," he said.

Meek unsuccessfully lobbied to have the resolution take effect no sooner than January, so schools could prepare to make individual accommodations for those who need them.

"I don't want to insert chaos into the system,” she said.

Divisions among the board were visible beyond their 4-3 vote. The three directors who voted no sat through the hours-long meeting wearing masks. The other four did not.

As public comment rounded its third hour, about half of the room — from the audience to district staff to directors — wore masks.

Peterson also instated new decorum rules for public comment, which had become a point of contention in recent weeks as the former board president Ray struggled to keep people from outbursts or reaction to speakers.

Before the new board was seated, board directors prohibited outbursts or reaction by attendees to public comment. Security asked people not to bring in items like handheld flags, or posters attached to handles.

Peterson now says reaction in between speakers is fine, so long at people do not interrupt a speaker. Those who do will be removed, he said.

Throughout the night, people cheered and applauded those who they agreed with. On a couple instances, someone booed a speaker or laughed at remarks. People also waived small flags.

Those who wanted the mandate lifted held American flags. People who supported masking mandates, and occasionally spoke in favor of the district’s equity policy, waived rainbow flags. 

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