Elementary school teacher Stacy Adair plunked on the podium an enlarged photo of a kindergarten boy’s face mask visibly ringed with dirt around the mouth and nose.

The child’s mask was in that condition less than an hour into the school day, she told the Colorado Springs School District 11 Board of Education last week.

Adair said she was addressing board members during the public comment portion of the meeting to report child neglect and possibly child abuse — on the part of the district.

“I don’t need to tell you it is very unhealthy for a student to breathe through this mask,” she said to the seven-member board.

Adair, who teaches English language learners at Wilson Elementary, gave the child a new disposable mask, but “statistics tell us that with one such case, many other filthy masks are being worn daily,” she said, calling on the board to reconsider the district's mask-wearing rule, saying younger children lack the personal hygiene and ability to tolerate limiting their breathing access for seven hours a day.

Despite objections from teachers and parents in many Pikes Peak region schools, the practice seems here to stay.

Colorado’s executive order mandating masks, first issued in July 2020, exempts children ages 10 and younger, as do public health orders on face coverings,  a spokesman for the Colorado State Joint Information Center said. Yet most local schools require most children to wear masks for the majority of the school day. 

The Colorado High School Activities Association also stipulates masks be worn by student players during some athletic competitions, such as volleyball and basketball games.

In extending the state's mask order earlier this month, Gov. Jared Polis indicated that course will remain the same for the rest of this school year.

“We fought hard to get Colorado kids back in school successfully, and we’re not going to jeopardize Colorado’s return of in-person learning by changing the mask policy this school year,” Polis said in a news release.

With the vaccine not yet authorized for children 15 and younger, consistent mask use is key to reducing virus transmission in school settings, state health officials have said.

Still, El Paso County schools logged 24 outbreaks of the virus in the past five weeks, according to El Paso County Public Health. That’s three times more than any other setting.

Those opposed to requiring masks for younger students at school say children statistically are low spreaders of the virus and usually pick it up from somewhere else and bring it to school.

Colorado Springs D-11 has no plans to alter its policy, district spokeswoman Devra Ashby said. The policy, which took effect when schools reopened in August, states that “masks will be worn whenever and wherever possible” by kindergarten through 12th grade students.

Children and staff who cannot wear a mask for medical reasons are excused from doing so, Ashby said. Students get mask breaks during lunch, recess and other outdoor activities. And students who need masks are given them for free.

The district relies on local and state public health direction, Ashby said, adding, “We’re still seeing a rise in COVID cases, mostly among kids.”

Dr. Mary Harrow, a family practitioner in Colorado Springs, told the D-11 board that “the data is overwhelming,” regarding harmful physiological and psychological effects of covering the face. She said masks can cause low oxygen and high carbon dioxide levels, shortness of breath, toxicity, inflammation, increased stress hormones and sugar in the body, and create fear, anxiety, headaches, compromised cognitive performance and other problems.

“What if we make them cantinas instead of schools?” she said. “They could take their masks off when they got to the table.”

But districts are keeping the mask mandate. Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8 requires masks in schools and on district property for all students and staff, said spokeswoman Christy McGee. Preschoolers ages 3 and 4 do not have to wear masks, she said.

All students are allowed to take mask breaks in class when not moving around, and outside, for a short time, McGee said.

“We are still seeing and reporting cases among students,” she said. “The virus doesn’t seem to be slowing down among young people.”

Divine Redeemer Catholic School also doesn’t make preschoolers wear masks, said Tricia Faber, athletic director and volunteer coordinator. Students in kindergarten through eighth grade must have masks on, except at recess and lunch.

“We have parents that feel like it’s not necessary, however we are doing what we’re being told will keep us in school,” Faber said.

Divine Redeemer has stayed open all school year, unlike many schools that reverted to remote-learning only between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and reopened later than usual this semester for in-person learning.

“Masks are a hot topic,” Faber said. “People feel very strongly one way or the other.”

Preschoolers and kindergartners are “mask optional,” in School District 49 in El Paso County, meaning they don’t have to wear masks if they don’t want to, spokesman David Nancarrow said.

“We looked at medical recommendations based on young students and their capacity to wear masks and their infection rates, and decided that would be best,” he said.

Students in other grades wear masks all the time, except when they’re outside and can be spaced apart physically or eating lunch.

“Masks are still part of our safety system,” Nancarrow said, adding that D-49 also has fielded complaints about its policy and “consistently re-evaluates based on input from families, staff and public health leaders.”

Contact the writer: debbie.kelley@gazette.com

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