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Montezuma-Cortez says masks will be optional in school

A student at Montezuma-Cortez High School operates a sewing machine on Jan. 6. As of right now, families will be able to decide for themselves if they want their students to wear masks to class this upcoming school year. (Courtesy photo)
At the Montezuma-Cortez school board session Tuesday, masks were deemed optional for the upcoming school year

The Montezuma-Cortez RE-1 Board of Education on Tuesday said masks would not be required when classes launch Aug. 16.

The review of COVID-19 procedures was moved to the first item on the night’s agenda. The topic took priority with less than two weeks until the first day of school, with some board members wondering whether masks should be required.

The board followed July 1 direction from superintendent Risha VanderWey, posted to the district’s website.

The rise of the delta variant concerned board member Dr. John Schuenemeyer, the only board member to wear a mask at the meeting.

The Montezuma County RE-1 School District Board of Education met Tuesday night to discuss the upcoming school year.

“I think it really is pretty critical to wear masks indoors,” he said. “The delta virus has affected younger people, and many of them have gotten quite sick.”

Schuenemeyer said he consulted with Director of Pharmacy Services and Infection Control at Southwest Health System Marc Meyer, who, he said, agreed masks should be worn at school.

“If you don’t stop it from mutating, and it’s spread, it’s going to eventually turn into something a lot worse,” said board member Chris Flaherty. “For me, I agree we should just stick to the plan (no masks required), but I could see that changing.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers Montezuma County an area with “substantial risk” of virus transmission. A county is classified as having substantial risk when more than 50 (but less than 100) new cases are reported per 100,000 people in the previous seven days, or if the positivity rate is between 8.0% and 9.9% in the same time frame.

However, the majority of board members were in agreement that masking should be optional.

“I too am saying to let these kids start school,” said board member Stacey Hall. “We’ve got a high percentage of staff who has been vaccinated. I think we’ll be safe, I think we’re doing what’s best for kids and for students and for staff.”

While the decision is the district’s official position, VanderWey said that RE-1 recommends masking, thorough use of sanitizer, social distancing and frequent hand-washing.

Board Vice President Sheri Noyes mentioned that the current plan mentions no tolerance for bullying of students wearing masks. She wanted a clause to be added that no students should be pressured for not wearing masks.

While the public was invited to attend the meeting or stream online, discussion was limited to board members only.

Before the workshop, some parents were uncertain what COVID-19 policies would be in place as the fall semester draws nearer.

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“My tagline is ‘Be Kind, Be Safe, Be Happy’ and that’s for all of us,” VanderWey said at the meeting while addressing the pandemic. “It gets really scary, and we can become very reactive, and the hope is that we don’t get to that point again.”

VanderWey clarified that policies are subject to change as public health recommendations develop.

The school board’s decision follows the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s endorsement Friday of CDC recommendation that everyone in a school setting wear a mask. School districts were given the liberty to outline their own procedures.

Additionally, the school district will restart a health advisory committee Thursday that will meet once a week. Depending on the severity of the virus, the committee might meet more or less frequently.

The pandemic and its influence on education will remain a fixed talking point at each Board of Education meeting, VanderWey said.

Teachers will also have access to free vaccinations. This effort saw 83% of teachers get inoculated against the virus last school year, the board said.

This article was republished on Thursday to correct a quote by Stacey Hall to read: "I think we’re doing what’s best for kids and for students and for staff.”

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