Gunnison Watershed school district shares mask exit strategy

Metrics monitoring begins in January

[ By Kendra Walker ]

The Gunnison Watershed School District has implemented an indoor mask mandate since September, and over the past 10 weeks has been working on finalizing an exit strategy for determining when it is safe to lift the mandate. Superintendent Dr. Leslie Nichols shared the finalized mask exit strategy with families and staff in an email last Friday, reiterating that in-person learning is the district’s top priority.

“While masks have been an important element in our management of COVID, we have consistently emphasized the importance of an exit strategy for masks because we know that in preK-12 schools, the long term use of masks is detrimental to learning,” she stated. “In-person school with robust attendance rooted in strong relationships remains our goal.”

The district has been working with Gunnison County Public Health to determine the mask exit strategy, which relies on metrics that look at the prevalence of COVID in the community, vaccination rates and access. The metrics will be monitored over a three-week look-back period starting in January, so the soonest the mask requirement could change is late in January.

“When four of the six metrics are met, we will return to masks being recommended for those not yet vaccinated, recommended for three days following recovery from illness, welcome for all, and required on school district transportation,” said Nichols.

The metrics include the following:
• At or below an average of seven COVID cases per week among GWSD staff and students for three weeks starting January 2022 as reported by GWSD.
• At or below an average of 17 COVID cases per week (approx. 100 per 100,000) among residents for three weeks starting January 2022 as reported by Gunnison County Public Health.
• At or below 10 percent community positivity rate for three weeks starting January 2022 as reported by Gunnison County Public Health.
• At or above 80 percent vaccination rate of all GWSD staff as reported by Gunnison County Public Health.
• At or above 80 percent community vaccination rate among those eligible as reported by Gunnison County Public Health.
• Access to vaccines for 5-year-olds and older for eight weeks. Vaccines for 5-11-year-olds became available on November 4. Eight weeks after that is December 30, 2021.

Data for the six metrics will be updated weekly on the district’s Mask Exit Strategy Dashboard.

Before changing the mask requirement, Nichols will also consider Gunnison Valley Health’s ability to transfer patients to other facilities and the school district’s ability to fill workforce absences.

Once four of the six metrics are met and factors are deemed acceptable by the superintendent, the mask mandate will change; however, masks will still be required in district vehicles in compliance with the federal mandate, recommended for those not yet vaccinated and recommended for three days following recovery from illness.

As of December 7, the school district has had 4 positive COVID-19 cases in the last seven days, and 120 positive cases since the first day of school.

The district’s Risk Reduction Toolkit remains in effect, which includes vaccination, ventilation, isolation, respiratory etiquette and illness reduction. Nichols noted, “Our Risk Reduction Toolkit has helped keep our schools open during the COVID-19 pandemic for in-person learning since August 2020. Masks are one of many tools to manage COVID risk. Our entire Risk Reduction Toolkit remains essential to keeping our schools as safe and healthy as possible.”

She noted that the COVID-19 pandemic still remains unpredictable, “The conditions under which the district may return to a mask requirement are not yet known,” said Nichols. “Public health experts anticipate that COVID will become endemic, meaning consistently present for the long term. What severity, case counts, and positivity rates will look like in the future is unclear.”

The school district is also currently in a lawsuit with several community members who disagree with the mask mandate, including Gunnison resident David Justice, CBCS parent Tomas Gomez, and Lake School parents Michael Spritzer and McKenna Basara.

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