Students and staff will be encouraged but not required to wear masks when schools begin to open Aug. 9 for the 2021-22 school year.

Mesa County Valley School District 51 on Friday released their health and safety protocols for the upcoming school year and the plans do away with mandated face coverings and the district’s symptom tracker while adjusting policies around quarantining individuals who test positive for COVID-19 or are around someone who does.

However, Superintendent Diana Sirko said the plans were built with Mesa County Public Health to be flexible with the county’s broader COVID-19 reality.

“Both agencies are about safety and about being able to pivot if needed to implement different regulations or different requirements,” Sirko told the Daily Sentinel.

Mesa County Public Health Director Jeff Kuhr said in a statement that health officials value in-person learning and “recognizes the impact on physical as well as economic health when that learning is interrupted.

“We will continue to work in collaboration with D51 to identify illness swiftly and take appropriate measures to slow the spread of illness, as well as monitor illness community-wide and make adjustments if needed,” Kuhr said. “The plan was well thought out and remains flexible. Depending on various factors surrounding COVID-19 in our community, protocols that are not part of this plan may need to be reintroduced. It is also possible that as more of our community gains immunity to COVID-19 through vaccination, we may be able to remove some of the protocols still in place.”

THE MASK ISSUE

The decision on whether or not to require face coverings for students was at the center of the district’s plans and by far the most controversial, Sirko said. In the hours after the plan came out, Sirko said she’d heard concerns but said Mesa County Public Health was comfortable starting the school year without masks.

“Some families feel very strongly that masks should be required and some families feel very strongly that masks should not be required,” Sirko said, adding that she receives regular emails from both camps on the issue.

Should parents decide they want their child to wear masks, Sirko said the district will work with them to try to make sure they are wearing face coverings at school.

Sirko said the mask decision was made after significant discussion with county health officials.

“They were certainly comfortable with us starting with masks not being required but were very clear that at any time that could change,” she said.

VACCINES RECOMMENDED, NOT REQUIRED

Sirko said the school district is hoping to give students a sense of normalcy this year and vaccines can help with that.

Students need parental permission to receive a vaccine and the shot is entirely voluntary, but Sirko said interest seems to be growing among students who don’t want to miss out because they were near someone who tested positive.

“We’ve seen more students take advantage of that because they do not want to be quarantined, because nobody wants to miss that big game because they were in quarantine,” Sirko said.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on COVID-19 protocols for K-12 education revised its guidelines, saying that students and teachers who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 no longer need to wear masks while at school.

In line with that, the district will not be quarantining fully vaccinated, non-symptomatic students or staff who may have contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. If a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19, the unvaccinated members of their household will be quarantined.

The hope is that a more vaccinated population will allow for fewer quarantines across the district.

“People aren’t always happy when I say this but vaccines make a big difference,” Sirko said.

BETTER PREPARED

Part of the plan benefits from more experience with the pandemic and more resources.

Rapid testing available at the district will improve quarantine procedures and better understanding of how the virus spreads allows the district to focus more on improving air flow and less on disinfecting every square inch of the classroom.

One of the measures taken last year to ease contact tracing in the event of a positive COVID-19 test was cohorting students into groups.

That practice is encouraged for this year when possible, but should be easier after guidelines for spacing students were amended from six feet between students down to three feet.

MESA COUNTY HELP

District 51 was the largest district to stay open last year, according to district officials, but the year was not without challenges. Some schools were forced to go online at points and in the waning months of the school year more than 10 district schools landed on the Mesa County Public Health outbreak list.

Since the end of the school year, Mesa County has struggled with the spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19, a more contagious strain of COVID-19 that was first identified in India and arrived in Mesa County during the spring.

While the early summer months have seen high COVID-19 numbers in Mesa County and a strain on hospital beds as a result of dozens of COVID-19 hospitalizations, the numbers have dipped in recent days with the two-week case count falling below 500 new cases on Thursday.

Sirko said that downward trend was key for officials to pitch more relaxed standards for when schools start.

“As Jeff (Kuhr) was saying, you know we’re not seeing as much of an increase in cases as we were,” Sirko said.

ONLINE LEARNING

Last year the school district started with around 3,000 students opting for online education but saw that number drop throughout the year. Sirko is hoping to see considerably more students opting to return to the classroom.

As such, the D51 Online program that the district relied on last year will be scaled back.

The program was built off of an existing hybrid online school, Grand River Academy.

Online learning will again be under the umbrella of Grand River Academy for next year.

ON THE FIELD

The district’s plan does not outline specific policies for sports and activities, as those largely fall under the umbrella of the Colorado High School Activities Association.

Sirko said CHSAA will be setting the guidelines for those activities, which must be considered in light of the COVID-19 situation statewide.

“I would expect theirs to be more restrictive than less,” Sirko said.