JEFFERSON COUNTY, Colo. – Hundreds of parents gathered outside the Jefferson County Public Health building Wednesday morning to protest new guidelines mandating students ages 3-11 wear masks indoors across Jeffco Public Schools.
The new back-to-school guidance also recommends vaccinated students 12 and up wear masks, regardless of vaccination status, and state masks are required for unvaccinated staff but recommended for those who are vaccinated.
School district officials said the new guidelines were issued with the goal of keeping students in school as much as possible and maintain a consistent learning environment.
The decision has angered some parents in – and outside – the district, who feel their choice to decide what’s best for their children has been taken away.
“My goal this morning is to make sure the Jefferson County Public Health Department realize this is not their choice,” said Shannon Sandoval, a parent in Douglas County who attended Wednesday’s protest in solidarity with parents in the neighboring county. “No one knows their children better than their parents. It’s very, very important we maintain our choice as parents.”
An organizer of the protest said the point of the demonstration was to give a voice to those families who don’t have the ability to relocate to a district that aligns with their beliefs.
“My family was blessed enough to be able to make the decision to move somewhere where we felt our choices were being honored but many people don’t have that option, and so we’re fighting for all those kids that need that,” said Beth Parker, who organized Wednesday’s protest.
Signs with the words “MY CHILD MY CHOICE!” “FREE YOUR FACE,” “NO FORCED MUZZLES,” could be seen as parents chanted “Freedom, not force!” among others.
“Choice not force” - one of the chants of JeffCo parents who don’t want the school district’s mask mandate. pic.twitter.com/GiBHPbRT5j— Veronica Acosta (@VeronicacostaTV) August 4, 2021
“This is not the at-risk age group,” said a mom at the protest who did not want to be identified for this story. “This is not about masking; this is about control. This is about the government trying to control us.”
Another mom at the protest, who also did not want to be identified for this story, told Denver7 she was worried about the psychological effects masks can have on children.
“I’m a mom of three kids and I truly believe masking a child is child abuse,” the woman said. “They need to see our facial expressions and our smiles on our face. What does it mean when you’re angry? What does it look like when you’re angry? When you’re happy? We need to see that from a teacher or a peer, so it’s important.”
Parker said she believes face masks should be left to individual choice and argued families who feel the need to mask should be able to do so, “but I also think if you feel comfortable sending your kids without a mask, then you have that option as well."
In the end, she said it’s all about having the right to choose.
“It’s not about the masks, it’s not about the vaccines,” Parker explained. “It’s about having a choice to prioritize normalcy in kids’ education, so it’s about the fact that everyone needs to be able to make their own choice and what’s best for the kids.”
Denver7 reached out to JCPH for comment about the protest. A spokesperson responded via email saying they reached out to a protest organizer prior to Wednesday’s demonstration “to further discuss their back-to-school guidance" but never heard back.
“Unfortunately, because that did not occur, in an abundance of caution to ensure all were kept safe, including staff, protestors and the community members who rely on JCPH services, JCPH closed its building for the day,” the spokesperson said.
Kids ages 0-19 (22% of the county’s population) account for 16% of cases in the county, according to the latest COVID-19 data from Jefferson County Public Health. People under 30 years of age (34.7% of the county’s population) account for 6.4% of hospitalizations due to COVID-19, public health data from the county shows.
Vaccination data from Jefferson County Public Health shows 56.2% of kids ages 12-15 have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. County-wide, 69.4% of people 12 and up are vaccinated.
Almost 72,000 children in the U.S. tested positive for COVID-19 for the week ending July 29, “a substantial increase” from a week prior when about 39,000 children tested positive for the novel coronavirus, the American Academy of Pediatrics said Tuesday. The group said cases have steadily increased in July after declining in early summer.
Since the pandemic began, children represented 14.3% of total cases. For the week ending July 29, children represented 19% of all reported weekly cases, according to the AAP.
Denver7 reporter Gary Brode contributed to this report.