Gunnison school district lifts requirement for facemasks

Lawsuit continuing

[  by Mark Reaman  ]

Gunnison Watershed School District superintendent Leslie Nichols announced Friday that the district’s mask mandate would be lifted on Monday, February 14 and this school week started without students being required to wear facemasks. Initial reaction from both parents and staff according to Nichols, was overwhelmingly positive. Meanwhile, the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed against the school district after the mask mandate decision was made indicated there was no plan to drop the suit since the action was taken over the way the decision was made and not the mandate specifically.

In an email to parents on February 11, Nichols explained that given how the coronavirus situation has recently evolved with the Omicron variant, the district’s mask exit strategy metrics are no longer reliable indicators of the need for universal masking. In other words, the numbers being used to determine whether masking was necessary are not always consistently accurate enough to use in decision making.

“COVID is with us for the foreseeable future,” Nichols wrote. “This decision is not arrived at lightly and has been made with full input and collaboration with Gunnison County Public Health. We have come to know that we have personal risk reduction choices at every turn.”

“Being vaccinated reduces the likelihood of hospitalization or death from COVID; wearing a mask during times of spiking virus behavior or in environments with closer contacts or greater variety of people reduces transmission; washing our hands frequently stops many illnesses from spreading – these personal choices and behaviors reduce our risk of contracting COVID in important ways.”

According to the Nichols email, masks will be “welcome for all, encouraged for those not yet vaccinated or with other risk factors, recommended following recovery from respiratory illness or after a known exposure to a person positive for COVID, required on school buses and all district transportation in accordance with the federal transportation mask mandate.”

Nichols said while not an easy decision, she is comfortable with it. “We continue to provide healthy school environments through our layered approach to risk reduction, including promoting vaccination,” Nichols explained. “The priorities of our Risk Reduction Toolkit continue to be vaccination and ventilation; the measures of staying home when sick, respiratory etiquette (coughing/sneezing in elbows, physically distancing, knowing contacts and masks as needed), handwashing and cleaning/sanitizing/disinfecting also are critical layers for mitigation.”

Nichols said her priority has been to keep the schools open for in-person learning and that has happened in a time when many schools shut down the last two years because of the coronavirus pandemic. “I have remained rooted in the belief that in-person education is best for students and staff, and that our teaching and learning environment is stronger without masks,” she said. “Masks impair our ability to build strong relationships and hinder reading, speech and language development, especially for our youngest students and for our students learning English.”

The district implemented the mandate three weeks into the 2021-22 school year when the Delta variant surged. Delta was considered to be a more dangerous strain of the virus. Omicron hit the district over the holidays and spread rapidly. It was less severe than Delta but still impacted students and staff. Based on Gunnison County numbers, that surge has passed. But it is also obvious that people are testing less and not necessarily reporting results given the relatively benign outcomes of Omicron. That means the district cannot accurately judge the volume of cases and thus the metrics used by the district are not reliable in terms of judging whether a mask mandate is warranted.

Nichols said the majority of the staff and all of the parents who reached out to her after the announcement were happy with the move. “While a handful of teachers are wary of the change and I respect those concerns,” she said, “response has been strongly positive from staff with many commenting ‘I can’t wait to see my students’ faces!’ Parent email replies today (Friday) have so far been 100 percent supportive, and that is an unusual response to any communication I send – to have comments all in one direction.” During the school board meeting on Monday, Nichols shared that reports from all campuses were positive so far. 

Nichols’ email stated that “CDPHE (Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment) is soon moving to what is referred to as “routine disease control” recommendations for schools, which means that schools will no longer be expending resources on case investigation or contact tracing. Instead, districts will respond to clusters and outbreaks of illness, like they do for norovirus or hand, foot and mouth disease, as examples. Likewise, quarantine requirements are being adjusted based on exposure risk.

“All of this said,” Nichols emphasized, “We still do not know what the future of COVID or other respiratory illnesses will bring. We remain vigilant and we understand that future variants of this virus may again require a collective commitment to wearing masks. Exactly what would cause a return to a universal mask requirement is not known at this time.”

As with so much during this pandemic, Nichols said no one knows when it will be just a memory. “COVID has been nothing if not full of surprises,” concluded Nichols. “So, it is wait, watch and see. Risk reduction has so many levers, and masking is one of them; we’ll see how things evolve. I’m very happy to return to learning and teaching conditions without masks in which relationships are stronger and reading, speech and language development for our youngest learners and those learning English can occur more successfully.”

When asked if the decision to drop the mask mandate would have any bearing on the current lawsuit against the district that was filed last October, plaintiffs David Justice and Tomas Gomez indicated there were no plans to drop it. “My involvement as a Plaintiff has nothing to do with masks,” Justice responded in an email to the News while cc-ing his fellow plaintiffs Gomez, Michael Spritzer and McKenna Basara. “It is an appeal against the School District’s unconstitutional dictatorship … Withdrawal of the lawsuit on my part would constitute a precedent setting concession, vesting an unaccountable, unappealable, absolute despotism in all Colorado School Districts.” 

See the complete response on page 8.

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