JEFFERSON COUNTY, Colo. — A Jefferson County group of parents says it’s been working for more than a year to understand who is making decisions in schools when it comes to safety.
The parents, who are members of a group called Jeffco Kids First, are advocating for a normal return to school and parental choice when it comes to masks. The group organized a protest in front of Jefferson County Public Health earlier this month on the matter.
“About 12 months ago when we were in the process of returning to school or moving toward that, we realized that it was really difficult to figure out who was making what decision, when the decision was being made, who is talking to who,” the group’s co-leader Beth Parker said.
The group of parents then decided to start filing a series of Colorado Open Records Act requests. Anyone in the public is able to file this type of request to obtain copies of documents and emails within governments.
“There’s a learning curve. You have to learn how to ask for certain information. You may or may not get it,” Parker said.
This week, the group received 309 pages of emails from Jefferson County Public Health, including emails between executive director Dr. Dawn Comstock and JeffCo School District superintendent Tracy Dorland from over the summer.
In one email dated July 28, Comstock is apparently imploring Dorland to come up with district COVID-19 policies, including masks for students.
“You have the ability to implement a mask order and to enforce it. You also know I will support you 100% - I will even be willing to say I pressured you to make this decision so you can say you took action that you knew would protect students but would also protect the school culture, etc in order to avoid having the public health authority dictate rules that would not be sensitive to the needs of students and their parents,” the email read.
Comstock goes on to say if she puts a public health order in place, the health department could be sued, wasting tax dollar and staff times. She also said public health orders are supposed to be a very last resort, used only when there is no compliance expected or a risk to the public.
“You are choosing not to implement rules for purely political reasons. You are bowing to pressure from misinformed parents in a way that clearly puts all of the students in your charge at unnecessary and unacceptable levels of risk,” the email read.
Comstock then said whatever decision is made will set a precedent moving forward and that requiring a public health order for masks in schools would undermine the district’s own authority.
It continued by saying if the district does not make its own rules, who’s to say students won’t start disregarding other district policies, like bringing guns on campus without a public health order in place.
“If enough parents do so and those parents begin challenging your weapons bans in court you will have to turn to CDE, the State, or me to receive the authority to force compliance,” the email read.
Comstock then goes on to say if she does have to issue a public health order for schools, it would go beyond masks since she’s likely to end up in court anyway and that she will do everything possible to keep kids safe.
“If I am going to take that step that will so damage the future authority of public health I will do exactly what is truly needed to prioritize, emphasize, and protect in-person educational activities. That means no unvaccinated visitors or volunteers interacting with school students, weekly testing for all unvaccinated students, faculty, and staff, and a likely ban on all extracurricular activities held indoors as well as a ban on holding other high risk activities (e.g. band, choir) indoors,” the email read.
Comstock concludes by saying she will take every reasonable, evidence-based action to ensure student safety and in-person education.
Parker believes the email proves the district was pressured into enacting COVID-19 policies.
“I think there was a lot of stuff happening behind the scenes that made me very uncomfortable,” Parker said. “It’s not really about masks or vaccines at this point but really the overreach of the public health department.”
She has three kids that she pulled from the school district last year over COVID-19 policies but also for their sports.
She believes the email shows that the school district was put between a rock and a hard place and says she supports the superintendent and the school board’s decision not to enforce a mask rule.
Jefferson County Public Health did ultimately end up issuing a public health order on Aug. 16, the night before classes were set to resume. The order required everyone ages 2 and up to wear a masks in schools and for extracurricular activities.
It also required all unvaccinated students and adults who are participating in school-based extracurricular activities to undergo routine testing during the academic year.
While Parker disagrees with the public health order, prior to this story's publication, more than a dozen pro-mask parents started emailing Denver7 with their thoughts.
Most wanted to make it clear that they support the health department’s decision and said they wished the school district would have done the same.
“I applaud Dr. Comstock for standing up for the health and safety of our children. Our students need to stay in in-person learning and whatever sacrifices we need to make as a community for that to happen are worth the inconvenience,” Kay Slater wrote.
Other parents said they read the email and took away a very different message from it.
“Dr. Comstock clearly spent a lot of time trying to protect JPS autonomy and authority and only stepped in when Ms. Dorland failed to live up to her obligations as Superintendent,” Christy Shukie wrote.
Numerous other parents expressed similar beliefs.
Denver7 reached out to the school district and the superintendent to ask for an interview or statement, but the request was declined.
Meanwhile, Jefferson County Public Health responded by saying that the emails are part of an ongoing, extensive conversation between the school district and health department about COVID-19 precautions for the 2021-2022 school year.
“Dr. Comstock stands behind the urgency and importance of the message conveyed in the email during this ongoing public health emergency,” the response read.