Garfield County’s two largest school districts take differing approaches on pandemic precautions

Dan England
For the Post Independent
Parents and students protest outside the Roaring Fork School District offices in Carbondale on Aug. 3 against plans to require masks for all students indoors to begin the new school year on Aug. 16. “We’re always an after-thought, and we’re tired of it,” said protest leader Jayme Goscha of Glenwood Springs, bemoaning the apparent pre-determined decision by district administration without hearing from parents and students first. “These are our public schools, and these are our kids. They deserve somebody to voice their concerns.”
John Stroud / Post Independent

The Garfield Re-2 School District won’t require students to wear masks indoors this fall. Roaring Fork Schools will require students to wear masks indoors unless their schools meet certain guidelines.

Rob Stein, superintendent of Roaring Fork School District, acknowledged the groans he know will accompany the decision, even from those who support it. He said, in his report to the school board, that he knows “everyone hates wearing masks.” But he instituted the guidelines based on current recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control, which said everyone, even the vaccinated, should mask up indoors, as well as the county health department and local doctors, two of whom spoke at the board meeting to support the policy.

“Everyone is sick of the pandemic,” Stein said to the board in a meeting explaining his decision. “We all thought it was over, and we’ve had a lot of disagreement. But we all care about our kids even when we disagree.”

In western Garfield County, Re-2 will “highly recommend” masks but not require them. The district made this decision based on a survey of staff that showed 70% of district staff feel “very comfortable” working in a place that encouraged but did not require masks. Comments were also 3:1 against masks when families were asked, “What are your hopes and/or concerns for the coming school year?” Board members expressed frustration at having to make decisions about public health when lawmakers wouldn’t do it. Many said they know it’s a divisive issue, with 50% against masks and 50% for them, and so they just wanted to provide guidelines rather than mandates.

Vaccinations, however, are a big part of both district’s plans. In both districts, students and staff who are vaccinated do not have to quarantine.

In both districts, students and staff also do not have to quarantine if 70% of the people in their school are vaccinated or if 70% of people “in your community” are vaccinated. Students and staff will no longer have to wear a mask if a school is 70% vaccinated. Stein said this could be an incentive for schools to get vaccinated.

“If we want to avoid disruption from quarantines this fall,” Stein said in a report, “masks and vaccines need to be part of the solution. It is important that we all work together to contain the spread of the disease and get vaccinated when eligible.”

Students will have to wear a mask in both districts while riding the bus under federal order. For now, the Colorado High School Activities Association will leave it up to districts on mask policy, though neither district will require masks outdoors. This could mean that some athletes playing indoor sports, such as volleyball, will be wearing masks and others won’t. Re-2’s board briefly tangled with that question, but members admitted they didn’t know what that would mean for games without more guidance from CHSAA.

David Brooks, a Glenwood Springs pediatrician for more than 20 years in Garfield County, said the isolation during the pandemic has damaged students’ mental health, something Children’s Hospital acknowledged when it declared its first-ever state of emergency for children and their mental health. He wants to see them in school and stay there.

“What has happened to them has been devastating,” said Brooks, who is also chief medical officer of Valley View Hospital. “It is not uncommon these days to assess a child who has had thoughts of killing themselves.”

Parents who saw their children struggle during the isolation spoke in favor of the mask policy.

“I appreciate the opportunity to keep our kids in school without having to quarantine all the time,” said Tashka Alvey, who has two kids aged 13 and 11, at the Roaring Fork school board meeting. “If they have to wear a mask, it is not earth-shattering at all.”

Other parents said they didn’t believe the science or, as Chris Fabijanic put it, said it was “evolving as we speak.”

“I love having kids in school, and I think having a mask on was helpful in the past,” he said. “But I’m not sure if it’s not shown to be as helpful in the present and future.”

One teacher, Megan Currier, said she accepted masks “if that’s what we need to do now” but hoped they would go away soon.

“I’m missing the expressions on their faces,” she said of her students. “It’s harder to get to know and build those relationships. I hope people are pushing hard to get rid of them as soon as possible.”