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School’s back (and so are masks)

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Correction, Aug . 9: The Roaring Fork School District will not decidedly be practicing serial testing as an additional precautionary COVID measure at the beginning of the upcoming school year. In accordance with a new program announced by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, this option is being explored as a possibility.

The Roaring Fork School District (RFSD) board convened a special meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 3, to discuss recommended COVID health and safety protocols for the beginning of the 2021/2022 school year. 

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Board President Natalie Torres began the meeting by acknowledging that while all parties may not agree about everything, the plan was made following science and medical advice from local partners.

Before outlining the proposed protocols, Superintendent Rob Stein described the process by which these types of decisions are made. 

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It starts with a recommendation or, as was common early in the pandemic, a directive coming from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other national authorities like the American College of Pediatrics and American Medical Association. 

That information then gets assimilated by statewide institutions: the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the Colorado Department of Education, the governor’s office and, as it related to school sports, the Colorado High School Activities Association.

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Then, RFSD’s “Thursday morning group,” which became a regular meeting in response to the pandemic, gathers together educators with county health folks, local hospital representatives, pediatric and family practice people, plus charter and private schools to interpret the latest information and issue guidelines.

“Everyone is sick of the pandemic,” stated Stein. “We all don’t like wearing masks.” Nonetheless, “I want to validate, we all care about our kids. Even if we disagree, we all want what’s best.”

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That said, Stein elucidated that the guidelines are based on two simple priorities: 1. the health and safety of students and 2. prioritizing in-person learning. Last year, according to Stein, those two were in conflict. This year, the difference is being reconciled. 

In addition to beginning the new semester with masks, the district will practice forms of physical distancing, contact tracing, targeted quarantining and high-risk activities will be limited. In accordance with a new program announced by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, serial testing is being explored as an additional protective measure. 

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In alignment with new state guidance, if someone in a school tests positive for COVID, others that had contact with them will not need to quarantine if both parties were wearing a mask, if they are vaccinated, if 70 percent of people in the surrounding community are vaccinated, or if the local incidence rate is lower than 35 cases per 100,000 people for that week. Those last two conditions will also be key to lifting the mask mandate in schools. 

Masks will not be required outdoors, meaning that all fall sports except volleyball (an indoor sport) will be allowed to practice and play without masks.

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Other exceptions to the masking rule include special circumstances (like phonics lessons) in designated areas.

Local medical experts Dr. David Brooks, Valley View Hospital Chief Medical Officer, and Dr. Matt Percy, a physician with Mountain Family Health, joined the call to say that we’re in a better place than last year. “Despite all the controversies and all the discussions and all the differing opinions, I truly sincerely believe that we’re more united than divided,” said Dr. Brooks. “I think we need to focus on common ground and that common ground is keeping kids in school.” 

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Both doctors stated that the number one thing the broader community can do to get masks off in schools, is to get vaccinated.

Opening the discussion to public comments, the board heard from several medical professionals with kids that attend district schools iterating their support for the plan and for keeping kids in school. 

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A few commenters expressed their concerns about requiring masks and encouraging the vaccine, a treatment approved for emergency authorized use but not yet given final approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Among these commenters was a group of about a dozen people that had brought signs to picket outside Bridges High School in Carbondale before joining the virtual meeting. 

RE-1 parent Carrie Godes shared her optimism that 63.3% of persons in Garfield County are now vaccinated with at least one dose. “If my child was in a terrible accident or had cancer, these are the people I would trust with their lives,” she said, referring to local health experts. “I just can’t imagine not heeding their advice at this time.”

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Board member Maureen Stepp concurred, “As a board, we get a lot of criticism that we don’t care, that we don’t do the work…” She continued, “As Rob [Stein] says all the time, we are not public health experts and we have to rely on the information that is presented. I have to rely on the doctors that are on the frontline.”

Despite differences of opinion, a tone of respect and appreciation prevailed throughout the meeting. Although no action was taken on the recommended plan, it was generally received as a necessary compromise. The board also assured constituents that they’ll be reviewing circumstances every week, hopeful that if things turn around after the recent jump in infections, mask requirements could be reevaluated within a few weeks.

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The new school year begins on Aug. 16.

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