Gunnison school district to lift mask mandate next week

Masks still required on school buses

by Mark Reaman

Gunnison Watershed School District superintendent Leslie Nichols announced Friday that the district’s mask mandate will be lifted on Monday, February 14. In an email to parents, 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.

“COVID is with us for the foreseeable future,” she 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 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 she 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 because of the 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’ 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, we will respond to clusters and outbreaks of illness, like we 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 continued, “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.”

We reached out via email to Tomas Gomez and David Justice, two plaintiffs in a lawsuit demanding an end to the mask mandate to see if the district decision would have an impact on their legal situation but have not yet received a reply.

 

 

 

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