Parents at Aspen council meeting speak out en mass against mask mandate for children

Parents concerned about children’s education and well-being use Aspen City Council public comment platform to send message to Pitkin County Board of Health

Livy Tergeoglou, 11, and Gabi Garaffa, greet each other before their first day of middle school on the playground behind Aspen Middle School on Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

While people party unmasked in packed bars and eat and drink in restaurants throughout Pitkin County and at the ski resorts, hundreds of children are forced to wear face coverings all day long in school and it’s impeding their education, eroding their mental health and creating fear of authority.

That’s according to two dozen parents who spoke for an hour during public comment at Aspen City Council’s meeting on Tuesday, urging elected officials to convince their colleagues on Pitkin County’s board of health to lift the mask mandate in public schools and child care facilities.

Julia DeBacker, a parent of six children in Aspen, said two years of forcing them to wear a mask has led them to be socially incompetent, fearful, full of anxiety and untrusting of authority.

“We know that you can’t change the health orders but your voices are louder than ours,” she told council.

Mayor Torre represents the city and council on the board of health, a governing body that is comprised of elected officials and citizens. The board of health doesn’t take public comment and is not scheduled to meet again until March.

At their wit’s end, this group of parents decided to have their voices heard in public comment at the outset of council’s regular meeting but their statements were aimed at the Pitkin County public health department and the board of health.

“I speak for so many of your own constituents who are suffering,” said parent Jill Edinger, who lives in Garfield County. “It is fair to say that I am someone who has a lot of grit, I have a lot of stamina and I stand here before you today that I am at my breaking point as a parent in our community of young children. I am literally falling apart at the seams on the pressure my family has to deal with these policies and live with them.”

Morgan Warth, a mental health therapist in the Roaring Fork Valley who works primarily with kids, families and teenagers, said the impact of COVID-19 restrictions on children’s mental health is concerning.

“The Aspen Hope Center has reported that in the 12 months of 2021 compared to the 12 months of 2019, there’s been a 130% increase in crisis evaluations for kids 11 and under … they are kids who are suicidal enough to warn a professional evaluating their risk for hospitalization within 24 hours,” she said. “There has been a 64% increase for adolescents ages 12 to 18 and a 28% increase for adults ages 30 to 39, which is many parents in the valley.

“I think those are pretty staggering statistics and show very clearly that our kids and families are in crisis.”

Speech delays, the inability to understand teachers, or pronounce sounds and letters, as well as verbally communicate effectively or see facial expressions, is all mounting on young children and students, parents say.

“We must de-escalate the fear culture that is pervasive in the school and normalize the daily school experience as much as possible,” said parent Anna Zane, who told council of personal experiences for each of her four children. “Many of them feel a deep burden of responsibility, and honestly, how can you not as a child feel a sense of responsibility when your teachers are telling you in your school that if you don’t properly mask it will kill your teacher?”

While listening to all of the parents’ stories, Councilmember Skippy Mesirow said he had to leave the room during public comment because he started crying.

“I find it tremendously valuable for you all to share your personal stories,” he said. “Just to think about a kid who has never seen their classmates’ faces is pretty terrible.”

Councilwoman Rachel Richards took issue with the one-side barrage of public comment and Torre’s failure to let school district officials, concerned parents on the other side of the issue or the board of health be invited to speak knowing that an anti-mask contingent was queued up prior to Tuesday’s meeting.

“I take these concerns and these issues and unique individual family situations very seriously,” she said. “I’m not hearing from parents who are concerned because their kids are immunocompromised, I’m not hearing from parents whose kids have had COVID, I’m not hearing anyone with the statistics about kids now having long COVID and those things are out there, too.”

Pitkin County Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury, who was attending a joint meeting with her colleagues and the county planning and zoning commission, appeared on the virtual council meeting almost an hour in to provide that opposing viewpoint.

“I’m getting texts and texts from people who are struggling as parents as well but also still wanting protective measures for our kids,” she said. “I am not here to advocate for any mask relief at the schools. … I think it is one of the few tools that is actually keeping our kids safe and I know that other parents share this with me and this is why I have jumped over here to rearticulate these protective measures for our kids and teachers.”

Councilman Ward Hauenstein said he shares the sentiments for all who spoke but it’s a pandemic out of anyone’s control.

“I wish we could vote here right now to end this pandemic and we would have a (unanimous vote),” he said. “I don’t want kids to have a mask on, I don’t want to have a mask on and I’m tired of having fogged up glasses. I think we are all over it but we are not over it, it’s not done with us.”


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