Universal masking required in county’s schools, child care facilities

Board of Health approves of new rules to help stop spread of delta variant

An Aspen School District bus parked in front of Aspen Middle School.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

All schools and child care facilities in Pitkin County will require universal masking for people over the age of 2 this fall to curb the spread of COVID-19 and keep kids in school as much as possible.

The Pitkin County Board of Health approved the requirement at a Thursday meeting following a recommendation from the county public health department; it will go into effect Wednesday, according to an email from Jordana Sabella, the county’s public health director.

The policy aligns with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

It all comes down to ensuring kids can engage via in-person learning without the quarantines that disrupted so many classes during the 2020-21 school year.

“There’s a real cost to kids when they’re not in school, and a real cost to families as well,” said Aspen School District Superintendent David Baugh.

In addition to the county’s across-the-board mask requirements, the Aspen School District also will require all staff to be fully vaccinated or in the process of getting fully vaccinated by Aug. 19, Baugh announced in a letter to staff earlier this week. A community vaccination clinic will take place at Aspen Middle School on Wednesday to help facilitate the full-vax goal.

Aspen Country Day School has yet to announce a staff vaccination policy, but with a few medical exemptions, the rest of the school’s staff are fully vaccinated, Chief Operations Officer Brian Davies wrote in an email Thursday.

On Oct. 1, individual schools and child care facilities can reevaluate the requirement if 70% of the staff and students at the entity are vaccinated, the county incidence rate is below 50 cases per 100,000 people over a seven-day period, and the entity has consulted with Pitkin County Public Health.

The public health department is still evaluating how mask policies will apply to high-contact sports, cafeteria and lunchroom situations, and band, orchestra and choir groups in schools, Sabella said.

Davies and Baugh both supported the requirement. So did Robin Strecker, a child care health consultant for the Kids First resource center, and Michael Hayes, the executive director for Compass, which oversees the Aspen Community School and Carbondale Community School.

“Keeping kids in school is our goal, right? We want them in school, in-person learning because that is the best for their mental health and well-being, regardless of (whether) they have to wear a mask or not,” Davies said.

There are plenty of reasons to require masks in schools, board members, public health officials and education representatives said at the meeting Thursday.

It’s a top strategy — along with vaccines — to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

But kids younger than age 12 aren’t yet eligible for the vaccine. And since many families have kids in different schools throughout the system, a universal policy is the best bet to keep things in check for now, Baugh said.

Public health officials reiterated that masks are both safe and effective; data show that schools with universal masking have “extremely low transmission rates,” Sabella said.

Plus, the delta variant is a “different beast” that’s “morphing into more of a pediatric illness,” said Dr. Kim Levin, who serves as the medical officer for the board of health.

Board member Dr. Christa Gieszl likewise emphasized that based on the information she’s seen so far, the delta variant is more infectious and more likely to affect kids infected by the virus.

“We are going to see more symptoms, we are going to see more sick kids, and we hope that we don’t see more hospitalized kids, but this is a much different virus than we were sitting here talking about last August,” Gieszl said.

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