The decision to require masks in Pueblo schools is now up to the city's two school districts after the Pueblo County Board of Health decided unanimously on Jan. 26 to alter the county's mask mandate for public schools.
Pueblo School District 60 and Pueblo County School District 70 were given two options proposed to the Board of Health by Pueblo Department of Public Health Environment Director Randy Evetts. The outcome will be decided through a vote by each school district's Board of Education.
"The Board of Health did not take the mask mandate away," Evetts said. "They kept it in place but they created some provisions in there that allows some flexibility for districts to approach it in another way if they vote to do so."
The first option proposed by the board does not require mask wearing in classrooms but would require them on public transportation through federal law. Each school would continue to follow PDPHE isolation and quarantine guidelines. Daily symptom checks for students, staff, contractors and visitors also would be required.
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The second option also does not include mandatory masking but gives school districts "full responsibility" for COVID-19 mitigation, Evetts said. Under this option, positive cases would still require isolation, and outbreak monitoring would continue as required by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
"All of the options include strong recommendations that schools continue masking, that they do symptom checking, that they do social distancing, that they improve ventilation," Evetts said. "All of those things are still important. It's not one strategy without consideration of the other strategies."
For immunocompromised students and staff, including those with chronic health conditions and special needs, masking, symptom checking and vaccination continue to be "strongly recommended" for both options, Evetts said.
While the Board of Health's decision was unanimous, Dr. Chris Urbina, medical director for PDPHE, suggested the board keep the mask mandate as it was originally set out.
"Dr. Urbina is concerned about transmission and was concerned that the schools would not take action and recommended that the board simply keep the mask order in place without the additional provisions," Evetts said.
Current mandates will continue for each district until a vote is made by each district's board members. Public information officers for both Pueblo D60 and Pueblo D70 said decisions could be made at upcoming board of education meetings. The next Pueblo D70 meeting is on Feb.1. Pueblo D60 will hold its next regular board meeting on Feb. 22.
"The decision was really based on ... giving the districts some flexibility but also helping them to understand that they are assuming the responsibility and the liability for managing this on their own," Evetts said.
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While official decisions have yet to be made by each district, the two districts have expressed contrasting opinions on mask mandates in the past. Pueblo D60 sent a letter to Pueblo County Board of Health President Donald Moore on Jan. 20 in defense of school mandates.
"As a District, we support the mask mandate and feel that it's a vital tool in keeping our schools open and our students and staff safe," the letter said. "Partnering with the state for free in-school testing is yet another sign that we remain committed to doing all that we can in the name of the safety and well-being of children and adults alike."
"Our focus at Pueblo School District 60 continues to be the health and safety of students and staff as well as keeping schools open to provide 'in-person' instruction," the letter said. "We look forward to continuing to work together ... reason and science, rather than politically driven falsehoods, will be the tools to defeat this persistent enemy."
Pueblo D60 Superintendent Charlotte Macaluso and all five members of the Pueblo D60 Board of Education signed the letter.
In Pueblo D70, Board of Education members requested the Board of Health consider removing the school mask mandate as early as Dec. 10. The Dec. 10 letter to the Board of Health was signed by all five members of the Pueblo D70 Board of Education.
"It is becoming evident within our schools that these measures are being detrimental to our children," the Dec. 10 letter said. "The duty of keeping kids in school and in a prosperous learning environment should be left up to the district. The decisions to mask or vaccinate children should solely rest on the students, their parents and their doctors."
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Following the Jan. 26 Board of Health decision, Pueblo D70 Board of Education President Anne Ochs said board members will vote on next steps for Pueblo D70 following an assessment of possible mitigation strategies.
"The Board will vote on its approach to COVID protocols, including masks, at a meeting in the near future after we convene and thoughtfully engage in a working group process to assess all mitigation strategies," Ochs said.
Pueblo Chieftain reporter James Bartolo can be reached by email at JBartolo@gannett.com.
This article originally appeared on The Pueblo Chieftain: COVID-19 mandates: Masks won't be required of Pueblo school districts