Whether or not Douglas County’s school kids should be able to doff their COVID masks in class or elsewhere on campus is a decision best left to Douglas County itself. And now that the state’s eighth-largest county has impaneled its own health board — having seceded from the Denver metro area’s Tri-County Health Department — DougCo is in a position to make that call.
Which is just what it did last week. As reported in The Gazette, the newly established Douglas County Board of Health declared masks optional for all people throughout the county. That includes children at school — which doesn’t jibe with the Douglas County School District’s mask policy. Following a previous order by Tri-County Health when its public health orders still governed the county, the school district requires masks in school for younger students.
What happens next for DougCo schools isn’t clear. What should already be clear, though, is it’s best to let Douglas County authorities — both the new health board and the school board — sort this one out amongst themselves.
The closer a governing body is to those who elected it, the more effectively it serves their interests. That’s especially so on a matter as divisive as the federal, state and local response to the pandemic. As noted here a little over a month ago, Coloradans are sharply divided on COVID mandates.
A survey conducted in August by Louisville-based political polling firm Magellan Strategies found 50 percent of Colorado parents oppose mask mandates for public-school students in grades K-12. Yet, 48 percent of the parents polled support requiring masks. That’s a statistical tie. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the opposing views reflect partisan loyalties. Some 83% of Democrats said masks should be required in school — while 79% of Republicans were opposed. Colorado’s largest voting bloc, the unaffiliated, opposed mask mandates 56-43.
"The state is … split down the middle over whether kids should be wearing masks to schools," Magellan's Ryan Winger told The Gazette at the time. "It seems like opinions have really hardened, too, especially among Republicans and Democratic partisans.”
In light of the survey findings and Douglas County’s own pronounced Republican tilt, its decision to drop mask mandates comes as no surprise.
That’s not to presume DougCo made the right call on masks — though it’s a safe bet it enjoys a lot of support among rank-and-file county residents. What’s important, though, is that the authorities balance interests when making such decisions. That means weighing input from the general public, locally, and not just from a public health establishment that is far removed from Main Street.
Local governments like the Douglas County Commission and, more recently, the county’s new health board, are in a better position to hear from parents. Those entities must balance wide-ranging priorities with the minimal risk COVID poses to kids. Keeping policy decisions local ensures they can account for competing interests among adamantly opposed views. Local decision making also can respond most nimbly to changing conditions amid a pandemic.
By contrast, the broader public health bureaucracy, particularly at the state level, is buffered from rank-and-file parents. It operates in a vacuum in which “kill COVID at all costs” is the only item on the agenda.
The DougCo health board’s order allows parents to exempt their children from mask rules via a "written declaration, signed by the parent or guardian of the child" if the parent or guardian believes the face coverings have a "negative impact on that individual’s physical and/or mental health.” The order also limits why and for how long students exposed or infected by the virus need to be quarantined. It gives adult staff in the district the ability to opt out, as well.
Douglas County Commissioner Lora Thomas, who also sits on the new health board, told The Gazette after last week’s vote that officials have been "inundated with phone calls, emails, communication from parents who are really struggling with their children who are struggling with wearing masks in school.”
Significantly, Thomas said the vote and health order were the upshot of officials heeding those calls.
That’s as it should be. Douglas County has set a worthy example for all local officials who have a say over COVID policies. Not necessarily with regard to mask mandates — again, that should be a local call — but simply when it comes to listening to the public.