DENVER – The brand-new Douglas County Health Department board unanimously approved a new public health order Friday that would allow parents to opt their kids out of mask requirements and do away with most quarantines for students.
In addition to the parameters for children, the board amended a draft version of the public health order to also allow the opt-outs to apply to adults as well.
The measure allows a parent or guardian to sign a written declaration calling for their children to be exempt from any mask requirements at schools and businesses “due to the negative impact [of masks] on that individual’s physical and/or mental health” unless they are required by state or federal mandates. A spokesperson for the county said the order would not only apply to schools.
The draft order says that “no facility subject to this Order may refuse permission for an [sic] child who has presented the claim to exemption as described herein to enter or remain within their indoor space due to the individual not wearing a Face Covering.”
The order also says that no Douglas County children would be required to quarantine if they are exposed to COVID-19 unless the quarantine is associated with a known outbreak of the coronavirus. The measure also contains language saying quarantines can be lifted after seven days if the child has a negative test result within five days of their exposure to the virus.
An amendment approved by the board at Friday's meeting prohibits quarantines on students who are asymptomatic.
The public health order is the first issued by the newly formed department, which was created after Douglas County commissioners decided to end their 55-year partnership with the Tri-County Health Department – partly due to a mask requirement order issued by TCHD at the end of August for students ages 2+.
The Denver Post first reported the forthcoming order on Thursday night.
At the onset of discussion about the order at Friday’s meeting, board member Lora Thomas said a teacher texted her asking the order to be amended to include teachers and allow them to opt out of the mask requirements, and member George Teal said he had heard similar things – possibly from the same person. Thomas and Teal are also two of the county's commissioners.
Teal offered the amendment to direct staff to amend the draft order to make clear that adults are included in its provisions, which was included in the version that passed Friday afternoon.
The board president, Doug Benevento, said they would discuss amending the order to include adults, though the union representing Douglas County teachers said they opposed lifting mask requirements in a statement.
“The Douglas County Federation knows that the best place for students is school buildings five days a week, both for academic progress and mental health. Universal masking is our best chance at keeping our school buildings open,” Douglas County Federation President Kevin DiPasquale said in a statement. “…It is shortsighted and ignorant to disregard the guidance and expertise of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the CDC, CDPHE and other credible sources. Following health guidance is imperative to keep our entire community healthy and safe, and keep our school buildings open.”
In public comment at Friday's meeting, several people said studies cited in the draft order showed masks had minimal effects on COVID-19 spread among students. Another speaker said the board was acting based off emotions and without quantitative data points – noting there were still many unknowns about the effects of masking with children in schools. And a nurse pleaded with the board to keep the mask requirements in place to keep children from being hospitalized for COVID-19.
Heidi Baskfield, the vice president of population health and advocacy at Children’s Hospital Colorado, pushed back against characterization by the board that the children’s mental health crisis was caused by kids wearing masks, saying there was no scientific evidence supporting those claims. Children's Hospital declared a children's mental health emergency in May.
Douglas County has seen one COVID-19 death among children under age 18, according to the TCHD’s data dashboard. The hospitalization rates for kids under age 18 in Douglas, Adams and Arapahoe counties was 0.55 per 100,000 as of last week.
Gov. Jared Polis said earlier this week there were 26 kids ages 0-17 across the state hospitalized with COVID-19 – 17 of whom were in the 0-11 years old range who cannot yet get vaccinated.
Though the TCHD and Douglas County commissioners reached an agreement late last month to continue providing most public health services to Douglas County residents through next year, mask requirements have been among the touchiest points for many in the county for months.
Commissioners sent the TCHD a letter in July 2020 informing the health department of the county’s intent to leave over mask mandates and stay-at-home orders. It created its own board of health last month and moved to break ties with the TCHD.
But the Douglas County School District kept with its mask requirements even after the county opted out of Tri-County’s order, and the district reiterated its commitment to mask requirements in a letter to district families on Oct. 1.
“The newly formed Douglas County Health Department governing board met and resolved that Douglas County is no longer under a Public Health Order requiring mask-wearing in school and child care settings,” that letter said. “However, the Douglas County School District will continue to require the wearing of facial coverings inside all school buildings (including neighborhood magnet, and charter schools) for all students, staff, and visitors regardless of vaccination status.”
That letter also said that the district and its schools “are still subject to the Tri-County Health Department’s quarantining rules” and said that if the district were to lift its mask requirement, the TCHD “would require DCSD to implement quarantine practices more similar to last year.”
This is a developing news story and will be updated.