Universal mask requirements not implemented sooner due to ‘internal logistics,’ says Garfield Re-2 administrator | PostIndependent.com

Universal mask requirements not implemented sooner due to ‘internal logistics,’ says Garfield Re-2 administrator

The Roaring Fork School District implemented universal mask requirements to start the 2021-2022 school year.

The Garfield Re-2 School District did not.

Now, about a month into the school year, Garfield Re-2 is reversing course and requiring all in-person students and staff wear face coverings to slow the spread of the more infectious COVID-19 Delta variant. The rule goes into effect Sept. 27.

Addressing concerns and questions during an online panel hosted Monday by school officials and the local medical community, Garfield Re-2 Director of Curriculum, Instruction & Assessment Julie Knowles said officials decided not to mandate masks when school started because certain logistics needed to first be in place.

“Had we put the mandate in effect immediately, we know families maybe wouldn’t have had time to prepare in having conversations with their students and/or finding masks if they still didn’t have any on hand,” she said. “We need time to communicate with our volunteers and our community partners who use our schools. We needed time to communicate with our administrators, teachers and staff on our dress code policy implementation.”

The district’s primary goal continues to be prioritizing in-person learning. In fact, although the district required masks throughout the 2020-2021 school year, it was one of 17% of all districts in the nation to remain in-person all year.

Garfield Re-2 Superintendent Heather Grumley said updated COVID-19 data the district has received prompted the district to pursue a different plan in order to remain open to in-person learning.

“I think it’s important to note that we started this year, of course, listening to all of you in our community as well as our staff,” she said. “Unfortunately, the other thing I think we’ve all come to learn over the last year is that COVID is not a static virus, and it’s not a static event.”

Ever since the school year started, however, a small contingent of residents have openly protested any potential protocol related to COVID-19. They picketed in front of the Re-2 administration building in Rifle. They’ve passionately voiced opposition to masks during regular Re-2 board meetings. They’ve even tried to use their opposition to mask mandates as a platform to advocate for eliminating comprehensive sexual education from the classroom.

Since the school year started on Aug. 27, the Re-2 district has seen 13 employees and 43 students test positive for COVID-19, according to Garfield County Public Health. Feeny said the infections resulted in 277 individual quarantines. Currently, the hospitalization rate of Re-2’s 4,789 students is 1.2% — or, four students.

The Roaring Fork School District, by comparison, has seen 14 positive cases and 14 quarantines since school started.

Community physician Dr. Nichole Feeny, who’s boarded in pediatrics and internal medicine, said Monday that kids make up 29% of the cases nationally, while it’s 27% in Colorado. The delta variant makes up a majority of these cases.

“Delta variant now is about 99% of our cases,” Feeny said. “It’s different because it’s more transmissible: about two times more than previous COVID variants were. It also affects more cells, and we’re seeing it affect kids at similar rates as adults.”

In addition to contracting infections, Feeny said more than 500 kids have died in the United States due to COVID-19.

In Garfield County alone, about 46% of kids ages 12 to 15 are fully vaccinated, while about 49% of individuals ages 16-18 are vaccinated.

Garfield County Public Health Nurse Manager Sara Brainard said the county has seen a consistent caseload in relation to COVID-19, with a 7.2% positivity rate and about 19 cases being recorded every day.

“We are seeing an increase in hospitalizations,” she said. “We have about 14 people hospitalized as of today, which is on the high end for Garfield County.”

As its COVID-19 cases continue to outnumber the Roaring Fork School District, the Re-2 district is also dealing with a staffing shortage. The district dropped dramatically from an 83% sub-fill rate on Aug. 23 to 66% on Sept. 16. The sub-fill rate is the percentage of teacher absences requiring a substitute that were in fact filled by a substitute.

“The impact of the staff shortage is amplified by the requirements of quarantine,” Knowles said. “Because of our severe staff shortage and our inability to fill all of our absences, we’re very concerned about being able to keep our doors open for in-person learning.”

Knowles said the district is required to quarantine under state law.

To end the meeting, the panel answered a plethora of questions submitted by the general public. They ranged anywhere from the effectiveness of wearing masks to how the district is helping students overcome depression and anxiety resulting from COVID-19 and COVID-19 protocols.

Knowles said the practice of quarantines will be lifted by the district once 80% of students are vaccinated. The criteria was recently raised from 70% by the Colorado Department of Health and Human Services.

“Of course, we’re going to follow our health guidelines,” Knowles said. “We have to rely on the experts — we are not medical experts, and we are going to be relying on those who have the MD degrees to tell us our best course of action.”

Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or rerku@postindependent.com

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