Summit School District will reevaluate masking weekly with input from public health officials |

Summit School District will reevaluate masking weekly with input from public health officials

Children wait in line to begin their first day of kindergarten at Dillon Valley Elementary School on Aug. 25, 2021.
Jason Connolly/For the Summit Daily News

Despite a recommendation to drop the countywide mask mandate, the Summit County Public Health Department continues to recommend masking in schools, and Summit School District officials say they will follow the experts’ guidance.

Several parents came to public comment at the school board’s Thursday, Jan. 27, meeting to express their concerns about the continuation of masking in school. Parents have said it is taking a toll on their kids, some of whom have difficulties hearing or expressing themselves, and Superintendent Roy Crawford said he hears and understands these concerns.

But Crawford added that it is his responsibility to listen to the organizations trusted with making these recommendations, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local public health departments.

“I’m not in a position really as a school superintendent, as a trained high school English teacher, to debate the medical pieces and the medical assertions whether to mask or not to mask,” Crawford said. “I don’t have that expertise.”

Sarah Wooten, a veterinarian in Silverthorne, has kids at Summit High School and Snowy Peaks and asked the district to consider ending masking for staff and students.

“Seeing people speak is a building block of phonetic development,” Wooten said. “It’s especially important for children who have disabilities. … My eldest son is hearing impaired, and he wears hearing aids. He is adept at lip reading, but right now, he has to work even harder to understand the teacher.”

In a call district leaders had with Summit County Public Health officials last week, Crawford said they talked about where the threshold or line is where the cons of masking outweigh the pros. He said he thinks the county is getting closer to that point.

“We believe it, too, in terms of social-emotional benefits of not wearing a mask, the communication benefits,” Crawford said. “I’ve seen research that 80% of nonverbal communication is through facial expression.”

Crawford said many parents have advocated for leaving it up to each family to decide whether their kids will wear masks and noted that folks have long had the opportunity to get vaccinated at this point. But if one person is wearing a mask and nobody else is, that diminishes the protection for the individual wearing the mask, Crawford said.

Another point Crawford reiterated is that schools are a unique public setting, where an adult will be in one room with as many as 30 kids for four to five hours. It’s not the same public experience as going out to a restaurant or the grocery store.

When the delta variant hit in mid-December, Crawford noted that the county’s incidence rate was about 100 cases per 100,000 residents, and it felt like things were looking up. With the omicron variant, the incidence rate climbed to over 1,000 cases per 100,000 residents, and that spike — the highest the county has seen since the start of the pandemic — is just about back down to where the county was before omicron.

Leadership members in each of the district’s schools have also been doing whatever they can to make sure the schools stay open. The biggest challenge has been filling classes with substitutes when teachers are out in addition to making sure everything else in the school is able to run without certain key staff members.

Looking at student and staff attendance in the month of January, it is clear the toll omicron took on the schools.

On Jan. 10, 6.8% of elementary, 7.8% of middle school, 8.1% of high school and 15.7% of Snowy Peaks students were absent. Things have slowed down, though, because on Jan. 25, absentee rates went down to 5.2% of elementary students, 5.4% of middle school students, 4.9% of high school students and 3.1% of Snowy Peaks students.

For staffing, the district has been keeping track of how many staff members are absent on a certain day and how many of those positions were left unfilled that day. Unfilled means the district was not able to find someone to cover the position for the day, so it had to be figured out in-house. School administrators, teachers and staff were filling in for those positions left unfilled, including serving food at lunch, cleaning and covering classrooms.

On Jan. 5, the district had 49 staff members out, and 24 of their spots were left unfilled that day. On Jan. 21, the numbers spiked with 63 staff members out, and 32 positions unfilled. On the day of the board meeting Thursday, 39 staff members were out, and 18 positions were unfilled. Crawford said it’s been extraordinary to see the lengths to which school staff members have gone to keep kids in school.

“We still managed to keep the schools open,” Crawford said, with the exception of two schools that closed right after students were set to return from the holidays. “I don’t know how they did it some days, but they did.”

Crawford said that as a parent, your one responsibility is your own child. He said in his role as a school superintendent, he is responsible for 3,600 kids, which is a different responsibility when it comes to decisions like this.

The school district will continue to meet weekly with public health officials to weigh the options when it comes to masking.

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