CASTLE ROCK, Colo. — Douglas County commissioners voted Thursday to opt out of the Tri-County Public Health order to require masks in schools. The TCHD board of health voted on Tuesday to require students aged 2-11 and the staff who work with them.
“We’re trying to prevent outbreaks in schools that require remote learning. We want to keep kids in school,” said Jennifer Ludwig, the deputy director of Tri-County Health. “This is a vulnerable population that we need to protect.”
The order goes into effect on Monday, August 23 for students. The health department did, however, allow for room for counties to opt out so long as the commissioners pass a resolution by September 1.
But the Douglas County School District said Tuesday after the TCHD voted for the mask mandate that it would require masks for kids in Pre-K through 6th grade and recommend them for students in grades 7-12.
Ludwig says while the opt out by Douglas County commissioners is not ideal, Tri-County Health wanted to allow counties to have the flexibility to make their own decision with local control.
During a public hearing Thursday, Douglas County commissioners listened to hours of public testimony from impassioned parents. Most of the parents called for the commissioners to make masks in schools optional while some called for the county to leave Tri-County altogether — a common theme since the beginning of the pandemic.
“That’s really what today is about, is fighting for that choice. It’s not you shouldn’t mask or you should mask, it’s every parent should have that individual choice for themselves and their children,” said parent Leslie Meyer.
Meyer and her family recently decided to relocate to Douglas County because of how it is handling the pandemic versus Denver. Meyer says this board of commissioners better aligns with her family’s beliefs in freedom of choice.
Other parents testified that masks would be detrimental to their kids, particularly those with hearing loss or other disabilities.
As parent after parent testified, a crowded room cheered and nodded in agreement.
“I feel very strongly that this issue of wearing masks needs to be a choice,” said Jeannette McMahan.
McMahan has never been involved in politics before COVID started but said as a parent it’s her duty to stand up for her daughter and get involved.
She understands and respects that some parents want their children to wear masks but says she wants mask supporters to understand and respect her choice for her family as well.
“I really do think at the end of the day that everybody wants what’s best for their kids and I really do believe that we’re doing the best that we can,” McMahan said.
There were a few parents who showed up to testify in support of mandatory masks.
Within the packed commissioner room, Heather Robinette was one of only parents who decided to wear a mask.
“It seems the decision has already been made. I feel like the resolution is going to get passed regardless and this is just more of a rally than it is an open mic forum for both sides,” Robinette said. “It’s very one-sided in there.”
She decided to attend the meeting to hear both sides of the argument and said she didn’t necessarily disagree with all of the points the majority of parents were making.
However, for the safety of her eight-year-old child, Robinette said she would prefer for masks to be required.
“I do believe in choice. The thing is, though, if you have a choice then the protection of the masks is not going to work anymore and so we might as well just be mask-less,” she said. “I’m just fearful that if we have low participation in mask rates then schools going to be out of session.”
Even with Douglas County choosing to opt-out, though, Ludwig says there is still an option for schools to opt in to the order.
“We still encourage any school district or school or childcare facility to adopt this public health order as their own policy in order to protect children,” Ludwig said.
Douglas County Public Schools had sent a letter to parents earlier this week telling parents masks would be required for students age 2-11.
Denver7 reached out to the school district multiple times on Thursday to find out whether that would change since the county has decided to opt-out but did not receive a response.
Meanwhile, the teacher’s union for the area said it supports masks in schools.
“Douglas County Federation supports keeping school buildings open, full time, and as safe as possible for students and all staff. We support Tri-County Health and science in requiring masks at the elementary level,” said Kevin DiPasquale, the president of the union, in a statement.
Adams and Arapahoe counties have yet to vote on whether they will opt out of the mask requirements for students.
For Douglas County, it’s now up to schools and districts to decide which rules to enforce.