The battle over masks in schools that has defined much of the fall semester in the Douglas County School District will likely stretch into winter, with at least one parent of a student with disabilities vowing to take the district to court following the school board’s decision early Wednesday morning to drop universal masking.
“I will 100% be suing,” said Kate Gould, mother to a 4th-grader at Heritage Elementary School in Highlands Ranch.
Gould said she felt “profound sadness, profound anger” in the wake of the Douglas County school board’s decision to end a mask mandate that she insists is critical to protecting her son against catching coronavirus, which she said could trigger severe illness or be fatal given his compromised lung function as a child with cystic fibrosis.
“My son works so hard to stay healthy,” she said Wednesday.
Gould is one of nine parents of children with disabilities who, along with the Douglas County School District, sued the Douglas County Health Department in federal court in October. The suit came when the newly formed department decided students and staff did not have to wear masks in schools, saying that parents should have the ultimate say over their children’s health.
A federal judge in Denver ruled that the county’s mask opt-out violated the Americans With Disabilities Act and declared it invalid.
But last month, a new conservative-leaning school board dominated by candidates opposed to mask mandates was elected. After a marathon meeting Tuesday night that stretched past midnight and featured a majority of speakers opposing the district’s mandatory masking approach, the board dropped the policy by a 4-3 vote.
The board’s decision takes effect immediately.
School Board President Mike Peters, part of the new majority on the board, said it’s about striking a proper balance between providing all students with equal access to an education without unfairly burdening 64,000 students with a requirement they all mask up.
The district was unable to provide numbers on how many students chose to uncover their faces on Wednesday.
“We expect superintendents and district staff once they identify students who need accommodations to work with them individually,” Peters said. “We want to make decisions as close to the student as possible. Decisions being made at the lowest level are the best, rather than one-size-fits-all mandates.”
Opponents of mask mandates say masks are not without their own harms when it comes to blocking visual cues critical to learning, especially among younger students. Even the World Health Organization has issued guidance that children under age 6 should not be masked and for those 6 to 11 years old, the agency cautions that mask use should be tempered by a number of factors, including the “potential impact of mask wearing on learning and psychosocial development.”
One person under the age of 18 has died from COVID-19 in Douglas County since the pandemic started in March 2020, according to data from the Tri-County Health Department.
“This (vote) was an attempt to reestablish parental choice around their children,” Peters said.
Those supporting covered faces in schools point out that Douglas County remains in a state of high virus transmission and that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends universal masking inside school buildings for students and staff. They also note that 98.7% of intensive care unit beds are currently occupied in Douglas County.
Jen Alexander, who was also a plaintiff in the federal lawsuit against Douglas County this fall, said she understands parent frustration about having to mask their children. But she said if her 3rd-grade daughter, who attends a charter school in Parker and has epilepsy, catches coronavirus “the chances of severe neurological complications would be likely.”
“We have to send our kids to school terrified,” Alexander said. “In my opinion, masks are a reasonable accommodation to protect the vulnerable.”
She kept her daughter home Wednesday in the wake of the school board’s policy change, saying she doesn’t know how the district can accommodate her without segregating her from her classmates. Gould said that’s what happened to her son at Heritage Elementary, who on Wednesday was placed across the room from the rest of the students.
She said she staged a sit-in inside the school’s lobby Wednesday morning to demand that the students in her son’s classroom be masked.
“We as special needs parents had less than eight hours to figure out if we send our children to school today,” Gould said.
Gould said she doesn’t know how many of the other nine parents involved in the earlier suit might join in a new lawsuit against the district. In a strange twist, they will no longer have the help of attorneys from the Douglas County School District, who argued on their behalf in federal court in October, because the board no longer supports mask mandates.
“The financial burden is going to fall on the special needs families,” she said.
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