Eagle County urges El Jebel Christian school to mask up

County health department extended mask mandate as COVID-19 precaution; parents and administrators at school see it as family decision

Cornerstone Christian School in El Jebel on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Officials from Eagle County Public Health and the Cornerstone Christian School in El Jebel plan to meet this week to try to get on the same page on COVID-19 precautions.

Eagle County issued a public health order Sept. 16 that extends an indoor mask requirement for students who are too young to be eligible for a vaccination. Students in schools and child care facilities must wear masks until Oct. 29 or until the community case incidence rate is maintained below 50 cases per 100,000 for seven consecutive days.

The health order applies to public and private schools, Eagle County officials said. But Cornerstone Christian School hasn’t mandated masks for its students, who are in classes ranging from preschool to high school.

“The decision was, this is a parent’s decision,” said Chase McWhorter, the parent of a student at CCS and also a candidate in the November election for a seat on the Roaring Fork School District board of education.

He said keeping circumstances as normal as possible for the students drives decisions at Cornerstone. McWhorter noted he wasn’t on the school’s governing board or administration. His perspective was strictly as a parent of a student at the school.

McWhorter said kids were allowed to do “kids things” all summer long — playing with one another, being around people without social distancing and not wearing a mask. Then school resumed and the county said they must wear masks again.

“To just slap it down the 11th hour, that’s where parents are frustrated,” McWhorter said.

Eagle County Manager Jeff Shroll said the goal of this week’s meeting is to sit down with Cornerstone Christian School officials and see if there are questions or issues about the mask requirement. The county’s actions are designed to keep schools operating in-person, he said. That’s achieved by avoiding breakouts of COVID-19 among students and staff, which forces online education. The county health department said the most effective way to keep kids in school is requiring them to wear masks.

Eagle County’s announcement of the mask requirement extension contended that conditions in the county warranted the precaution.

“The school year started with the challenge of a much higher amount of COVID-19 transmission in the community as compared to the 2020-2021 school year,” the announcement said.

The public health department noted at the time of the announcement in mid-September that “this decision remains difficult given the elevated concerns among community members, both for and against mask requirements.”

Elevated concerns over the mask requirement bubbled over in Jefferson County in Colorado’s Front Range this week, according to coverage by The Denver Post. The Jeffco Health Department sought a judge’s order to force three small Christian schools to follow the county’s mask requirement. The health department said its inspectors found the mask mandate wasn’t being properly enforced in classrooms. The schools contended, in part, that the mandate was unconstitutional.

Shroll stressed that Eagle County’s emphasis is on education rather than enforcement action. He said the county feels the masks in indoor settings are a simple yet effective precaution.

“We’re not mandating vaccines,” Shroll said.

Cornerstone Christian School’s position has reportedly sparked internal debate. Some parents decided to remove their children from the school, according to sources familiar with the moves but didn’t want to go on the record for fear of alienating other parents. The number of children pulled from the school over the lack of masks couldn’t be determined.

In addition, CCS executive director Emily Lambert and the school parted ways earlier this month. Lambert declined comment about her departure when contacted by The Aspen Times. She was in the position since July 2019.

Pastor Jim Tarr of the Cornerstone Christian Center, which operates the school, also declined comment on personnel matters and “families’ choices.”

Tarr invited The Aspen Times on Tuesday to submit written questions about the mask debate but said via email Wednesday that he and the governing board at the school decided not to provide answers.

“We are having a meeting with representatives from Eagle County and look forward to working with them,” Tarr’s email said. “We are pleased that we haven’t had any incidences of COVID last year or this year.”

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