School district positive COVID cases steadily decline

Mask mandate compliance going well

[ By Kendra Walker ]

Since issuing an indoor mask mandate on September 13, the Gunnison Watershed School District has seen a steady decrease in the amount of positive COVID-19 cases among staff and students. Now into the seventh week of school, the district currently has less than three positive cases according to its COVID-19 dashboard, compared to 22 cases when the mask mandate was issued.

Looking at a week-by-week case count since the beginning of the school year, the numbers rose from eight, to 10, to 22 before the mandate was issued. Once masks were required for all students and staff inside school buildings, the week-by-week case count dropped to nine, to three, then two, and fewer than three this week. Cumulatively, the district has tallied 54 positive cases since the beginning of the school year.

“We have seen a dramatic decline within the district,” said superintendent Leslie Nichols. “Community case counts have stabilized but not dropped as precipitously as ours have, but that does coincide with our mask mandate and that is encouraging. I cannot say with confidence that it led to our data declining so quickly because there is a delay in getting test results, but I think masks as part of our current risk reduction toolkit are helping.”

Though the mandate was a contentious decision and many parents and community members passionately spoke against the mandate during the last month’s school board meeting addressing the issue, Nichols is appreciative of the cooperation that’s been shown since. “I think our compliance level is outstanding and I’m completely grateful to our parents and our teachers and staff for making all that happen,” said Nichols. “It really takes collaboration to get nearly 2,500 people each day all changing their behavior in the same direction.”

Nichols says the district is still committed to finding an appropriate time to exit the mask mandate, and is monitoring six pieces of data to help inform the decision, including: positive case counts within the district; positive cases within the community; district staff vaccination rates (current at 84-percent vaccinated); local health care system capacity (which remains strong, said Nichols); and school district staffing strength. Currently, the district is experiencing staff shortages in the areas of substitute teachers, bus drivers, food service staff and educational assistants.

“We do have contention around this issue for sure,” said Nichols on the mask mandate. “I do feel there is broad agreement across the community that in-person school is best. And in-person school without masks is even better because it allows for stronger relationships, and supports better speech, language and reading development and learning for all of us. My first responsibility is to provide safe schools and we want to get back to not having masks. Right now, masks are a tool to keep our spaces safe.”

Looking ahead to the upcoming October Break, Nichols asks that families and staff do their best to avoid contracting COVID while they travel. “I encourage families to employ all the risk reduction tools we’ve learned over the past 18 months.”

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