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Masks in schools key to controlling delta variant spread and maintaining in-person classes, public health advises

The prevailing thought among public health experts has flipped when it comes to the benefit of having younger children wear masks in school.

Last year, before the COVID-19 vaccination was available, evidence suggested that children under age 10 were not as susceptible to contracting the virus, Garfield County Public Health Director Yvonne Long noted in an update to county commissioners this week.

Thus, requiring elementary school-aged children to wear masks in school settings wasn’t the norm.



But now that a growing percentage of the adult and teen population is becoming vaccinated, and children under age 12 are not yet eligible to receive the vaccine, they become more at risk, Long said during the Monday commissioners meeting.

The latest uptick in cases nationwide associated with spread of the more contagious delta variant has included more pediatric cases than during the pandemic’s onset last year, she said.

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That’s one of the reasons Garfield County Public Health, with guidance from the Colorado Pediatric Association and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, strongly recommended masks in schools, Long said.

“The disease does still tend to show up with very mild symptoms or asymptomatic in children, but the virus needs a host,” she said. “Until (children) can be vaccinated, they are the host.

“We certainly don’t want our kids to be an experiment in what this virus decides to do next,” Long said.

County health did not mandate that school districts require masks, but as it has done since the beginning of the pandemic, it simply offered guidance and recommendation, Long said.

The ultimate decision regarding masks was left up to individual school districts.

With the start of the new school year this week, Roaring Fork Re-1 schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt are requiring all students to wear masks indoors. Teachers and staff are also asked to mask up whenever they are in direct contact with students.

The Garfield Re-2 and District 16 schools in New Castle, Silt, Rifle and Parachute are strongly recommending masks, especially for students who are not vaccinated. But it’s voluntary.

Another goal with the mask requirement is to keep as many students as possible in the classroom, and to limit the routine quarantines and dual online instruction that schools were dealing with on a regular basis last school year.

Whenever there’s a confirmed case involving a school setting, “We will continue to do everything as we did last year,” Long said.

That means quarantine and isolation protocols will continue, she said. As more students and school staff become vaccinated, and with the continued use of masks to prevent disease spread, the hope is that it will be less frequent and involve fewer numbers of students, Long said.

“We support the school districts in the decisions that they have made, and we will continue to work with the schools, as we always have, when it’s time to shut down,” she said.

As of Aug. 12, 66% of Garfield County’s eligible population had received at least one dose of either of the two-dose vaccines, Pfizer or Moderna; 59% of the county’s eligible population has been fully vaccinated.

Breaking that down for the eligible school-aged population, 37% of those ages 12-15 and 43% of those ages 16-18 have been fully vaccinated, according to the county’s latest data.

The number of people getting vaccinated continues to be about double on the eastern end of the county, where Roaring Fork Schools are located, than in the west-end communities, where Garfield Re-2 and District 16 schools are located.

However, the eastern end of the county has seen a greater uptick in new COVID-19 cases over the past 30 days compared to the west end.

While Carbondale has seen about 0.5 cases more per day during the past month, Parachute has seen 0.5 fewer cases per day during that same period, according to statistics posted to the county’s COVID-19 data web page.

Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or jstroud@postindependent.com.


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