Garfield County commissioners’ resolution gives leeway to schools
Garfield County commissioners found themselves on the receiving end Monday of the vocal ire of some parents who are fed up with COVID-19 protocols in schools, while trying to distance the county from being the one to make those rules.
Commissioners, on a 3-0 vote at a special meeting, approved a resolution seeking to clarify the Garfield County Board of Health and the Public Health Department’s role in giving guidance to schools.
The purpose, as stated by the commissioners after a lengthy discussion Jan. 17, was to make it clear that it’s the county’s role to “advise and not mandate” schools when it comes to public health matters.
The resolution was designed to give public and private schools in the county the leeway to set their own rules as they see fit, but some Garfield Re-2 District parents who spoke during the two-hour-long meeting on Monday weren’t satisfied.
“Unless you have strong language, school boards will hide behind (the public health guidance) to keep our kids behind masks,” said parent Emily Hisel.
Conservative political activist Sherronna Bishop of Silt, the self-described “America’s Mom” who’s been a regular at Garfield Re-2 school board meetings, called on Re-2 Board President Meriya Stickler and other school board members who aren’t willing to do away with the COVID-19 protocols to resign.
“This has become such a farce. The authority belongs to the school board, and I’m disgusted as a parent sitting here listening to this,” Bishop said after Stickler spoke saying the district has tried to walk the line between those in the district who oppose the rules and those who support them for the sake of controlling the spread of the virus.
“If you can’t make a decision, get out of the school board,” Bishop said, prompting Commissioner Mike Samson to chastise her for getting too personal and political in her comments.
“It doesn’t help to put people on the spot and belittle them,” Samson said. “We all need to ratchet it down a little bit.”
Commissioners, at Samson’s suggestion last week, had considered a stronger statement that mandates around mask-wearing and quarantine protocols when school students and staff test positive for COVID-19 or become symptomatic are not advised.
They opted for a broader resolution, drafted by county legal staff with input from the commissioners, outlining the county Board of Health and the county public health director’s roles in using CDC and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) guidelines to support schools around matters involving communicable diseases.
Counties do have the authority to issue public health orders and mandate such things as masks and other public health safety measures, County Attorney Tari Williams said.
However, Garfield County has opted since the beginning of the pandemic nearly two years ago not to use that authority, leaving those matters up to the state.
The resolution passed Monday states that the county Board of Health, made up of the three commissioners, and public health workers support school districts and private schools with guidance.
But, schools are allowed to make decisions based on their own circumstances, it also declares.
“A health policy adopted by a school district may not comply with CDPHE guidelines and still demonstrate the ability to mitigate or prevent in-school transmission of COVID-19 or an outbreak,” the four-page resolution reads. “Schools must balance competing responsibilities when making appropriate health policy decisions and should coordinate with their own legal counsel for advice about requirements and repercussions of following or not following the guidance provided by CDPHE.”
The resolution cites five primary declarations, including (paraphrased):
- That the county Board of Health (BOH) commends the employees of Garfield County Public Health for “exemplary dedication and service” throughout the pandemic;
- That the BOH has never adopted any public health restriction that is stricter than those imposed by state;
- The BOH recommends that schools follow CDPHE guidelines, which offer flexibility for schools to balance unique needs and goals;
- That Garfield County Public Health will continue to offer support, assistance and guidance to schools; and,
- Per the direction of the BOH, school districts and private schools may make their own decisions and weigh the risks in consultation with their attorneys and other advisors.
Read the full resolution in its entirety:
That final point is a big one for school districts and other institutions that could be held liable for not following public health standards, should legal action be taken.
The Roaring Fork School Board is slated to confirm the district’s current approach at Wednesday night’s meeting after the commissioners caused “confusion in our school community,” a staff memo states.
“In light of recent signals from Garfield County Board of Public Health, we wanted to ask our board to confirm what process we should be using in responding to the pandemic,” the memo reads. “Our approach this year has been to maintain in-person learning while prioritizing health, safety and in-person learning.”
For Re-2’s board, Stickler noted that schools are still under a state public health order issued by Gov. Jared Polis in late December directing them to work with their local public health departments in following guidance around COVID-19. That and other standing orders are to be reviewed in early February.
“I think Garfield Re-2 has done a good job of being as minimalist as possible,” Stickler said, noting the district’s mask requirement that was issued in September was meant to help keep students and staff out of quarantine.
“I fail to see how this resolution helps us move forward,” she said.
Stickler also noted that about 50% of teachers and staff in the district have indicated that they would not be in favor of lifting the mask requirements.
“There is a huge risk to the district to not do any protocols at all,” she said.
Samson said he respects the power and authority given to the elected school boards to make their own decisions.
“I don’t expect all three districts to do the same thing,” Samson said of the three primary school districts serving Garfield County, the Roaring Fork School District Re-1, Garfield Re-2 and Garfield District Re-16 in Parachute. “Each has a different clientele and political flavor.
“The three of us are trying to do the best we can for the people of Garfield County, and we want to continue to make sure that our freedoms are preserved,” he said.
Added Commission Chairman John Martin, “We’re all suffering from fatigue on this. It’s time to say enough is enough, and realize we’re at a point in time where we’re just going to have to live with COVID. Those who have fear, or a higher level of risk, need to make their own choices to keep themselves safe and do what they feel is right.
“If someone wants to take that risk, that’s your choice, … but quit depending on government to protect you,” Martin said.
Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or email@example.com.
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