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Roaring Fork And Aspen School Districts Battle The Delta Variant With New Safety Protocols

Halle Zander/Aspen Public Radio News
Students at Roaring Fork and Aspen School districts returned this past week with new safety protocols amid a rise in COVID-19 cases from the delta variant.

Thousands of students in the Roaring Fork Valley have returned to school amid a national spike in the delta variant of COVID-19.

“We are mask-mandated everywhere inside the building,” said Sienna Pargiter-Walker, a senior at Roaring Fork High School in Carbondale. “It’s being enforced. It just kind of looks the same as last year. Everyone is masked up.”

The Roaring Fork School District is requiring all students to wear a mask indoors. Superintendent Rob Stein rolled out the new protocols at a recent virtual school board meeting.

“Students will start the year wearing masks indoors, staff will wear masks when they’re in the presence of students (and) we will not require masks for outdoors,” Stein said. “Visitors will wear masks, and staff who have furnished proof of vaccination will not need to wear masks when students aren’t present.”

Stein developed these policies after receiving guidance from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which encourages unvaccinated people to wear masks while indoors. But Stein has instituted a universal mask mandate regardless of vaccination status.

“One of the reasons that we wanted to keep it simple and have all students wear masks is because a lot of our feedback was concerned about the stigma of some students wearing masks and others not, and violations of privacy,” Stein said. “So this way, we’re all in this together.”

Universal masking is part of Stein’s layered approach to COVID prevention.

Roaring Fork schools will also increase testing and physical distancing, and limit high-risk activities such as indoor band practice and contact sports. Visitors will wear masks and staffers will provide proof of vaccination if they wish to take their masks off when students are not present. The district is also encouraging students ages 12 and older to get vaccinated. All of these strategies aim to keep students safe and avoid unnecessary quarantines.

Last year, 797 students were absent from school at one point because of isolation and quarantine, Stein said. And on average, 113 students were out of school because of quarantine.

This year, positive COVID cases won’t require an entire classroom to stay home from school. The district’s local health partners will help schools decide who gets quarantined based on a number of factors.

“If you’re vaccinated, you don’t have to quarantine, even if you’ve had extreme exposure,” Stein said. “If you’re both wearing masks, it really reduces the need to quarantine. But there might be some times that they’re still going to ask us to quarantine.”

The Aspen School District began classes this past week, and the district is mandating indoor masks for all students and staff. But Superintendent Dave Baugh is going a step further, requiring vaccination for all staffers.

COVID-vaccine mandates are rare for Colorado school staffers. Aurora Public Schools and Denver Public Schools are the only other districts in the state requiring vaccinations. According to Baugh, 92% to 96% of Aspen staffers are already vaccinated against COVID. He said Colorado law allows for certain exemptions.

“It’s Colorado, so there’s a lot of opportunity to opt out,” Baugh said. “You have to have a medical reason or religious reason. I haven’t seen a lot of religions against vaccinations. That’s a pretty high bar.”

Baugh said he hopes these exemptions will prevent him from having to let any employees go.

The chief medical officer at Valley View Hospital, Dr. David Brooks, said COVID is now among the top 10 causes of death for children nationally and that the delta variant is just as transmissible as chickenpox. Brooks agreed that masks and vaccines are the best way to keep kids physically safe. And he said keeping kids in school is the best way to keep them mentally healthy.

Brooks said anxiety, depression and sleep issues are among the concerns that are troubling kids these day. “And the primary driver of this mental health crisis is the lack of structure, the lack of consistency," he said. "So we must make children first and keep them in school.”

Pargiter-Walker, the Roaring Fork senior, is disappointed that COVID is still such a big issue, but wearing a mask doesn’t bother her.

“Knowing where COVID is and knowing that the delta variant is out there and is a lot more dangerous even if we are vaccinated — so I do think it’s the safest option," she said. "It doesn’t really affect me too much. It’s just a mask.”