School district “advocating but not mandating” face masks

Other health protocols will remain intact for students and staff 

By Katherine Nettles

After weeks of consideration, the Gunnison Watershed School District announced on Monday, August 9 that it will encourage both vaccinations and masking among its eligible student body and staff members as a measure against the ongoing COVID pandemic, but not require either for the start of the 2021/2022 school year. The focus will be on continual ventilation and air filtration practices, on health screenings, on other effective prevention strategies like regular hand washing and on creating a supportive culture for students and staff to make their own decisions about masking at school. The exception is that all buses, whether through the district or otherwise, do require masking, per current federal law.

“Masks are recommended for those who are unvaccinated and welcome for all,” will be the mantra for the GWSD, said superintendent Leslie Nichols during Monday night’s school board meeting. 

Nichols said the resurgence of the virus, particularly the Delta variant, has caught public health officials and epidemiologists by surprise. And considering Gunnison County’s previous success and relatively high vaccination rate, she wants to give the district a chance to overcome current uptick trends once more. 

Nichols said after having been in constant communication with Gunnison County public health director Joni Reynolds for the past two weeks and reconvening with a stakeholders group that had last met in June, she felt confident that the most important steps to take are continually encouraging people who are eligible to get vaccinated, those not eligible to wear masks and to maintain other important risk reduction protocols such as air circulation, daily health screenings and proper hygiene. But she felt that requiring masks or vaccines would be damaging to the district and cause unwarranted fractures among some of its members. 

Nichols reviewed for school board members that during the first three weeks of July, there were an average of 10 to 11 positive COVID cases per week in Gunnison County. Then during the last week of July, that average jumped to 38 cases, and the higher numbers continued into the first week of August. 

Of those positive cases, 83 percent were among unvaccinated people and 17 percent were breakthrough cases from individuals who had been vaccinated. Across the state, that is also true with 80 to 85 percent of cases occurring among unvaccinated individuals. Nichols said she is hearing that experts had predicted these new trends and the variant uptick to happen at some point in the future, but not so soon after seemingly getting a handle on the virus this summer. 

“Everybody is surprised by this, including the school district,” she said.

Although no new public health orders are coming at this time, the county plans on increasing communications and messaging around risk reduction with an emphasis on vaccinations as a primary tool for fighting the virus, following the Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommendations and staying home when sick.

Nichols said after reflecting all weekend and attending multiple meetings, she believes this is also the right course for the school district. The school board members agreed unanimously with Nichols and applauded her decision.

The district’s risk reduction toolkit from last school year will remain in place, which includes a strict illness policy, air filtration; lots of hand washing; and daily health screenings including temperature checks. The district will also continue offering COVID testing at school on site and is working to get rapid testing as well.

Nichols noted the district got high marks from public health last year for its various air exchange rates in its buildings, and air filters will also remain in place. 

Nichols said the emphasis will be for staff to get vaccinated and for younger students who can’t get the vaccine to wear masks if they are comfortable doing so. A culture of accepting masks will be encouraged across the district and in every classroom. 

“Masks are recommended for the unvaccinated and welcome for all,” she repeated. “We will do everything we can to support the differences among our students,” she said. This will include normalizing mask behavior,“And no one needs to give each other grief in either direction.” She said she will be meeting with teachers, especially in the elementary classes, to emphasize creating an environment in which masking is widely accepted and supported. “I hope that they will come out in masks, in large numbers.”

Nichols said she could foresee people questioning how the district is doing something differently than what is currently recommended by the CDC. “I have grappled with that question for weeks now, since the CDC recommendations came out,” she said.

“We have done the very hard work in this last year of figuring out how to be successful and keeping our schools open,” said Nichols, “With in person school as our guiding principal, with robust attendance,” Nichols emphasized the social emotional benefits of that, and how she believes they can deliver the same results of health, safety and learning in person again.

“We didn’t let up on any of those,” she said of last year.

Nichols noted that the vaccination rates are over 80 percent among staff; over 50 percent among students age 16 years old and up; and just under 40 percent  among students age 12 to 15 years old. Children age 12 and younger are not yet eligible for a COVID vaccine, although one is expected in late 2021 or in 2022. 

But she said she does not want to unnecessarily create conflict among district members and staff with mandates. “I believe there are other ways to support our staff and encourage vaccines,” she said, primarily through communication, education and offering vaccination clinics. 

“We are going to pursue other strategies” she said. “But as a species, we have to get broad vaccination to beat this virus.” 

Although there are currently no school bus routes scheduled for the North Valley due to a lack of drivers, buses will require riders to mask up, under federal laws. This cannot be changed at a local level until it is rescinded federally, so anyone using a bus will still need to use a mask.

“We fully recognize that the conditions of this pandemic have changed, and that it is not over…The game is back on. We will continue to manage day by day,” concluded Nichols. 

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