Students at Montrose High School

Students walk into Montrose High School's main building during the school year in 2019.

Unvaccinated students and staff in the Montrose County School District will not be required to wear masks to start the school year.

“We’re going to make sure that whatever plans that we compile are going to ensure the health and safety of all of our students and staff. That’s our No. 1 priority,” the district’s spokesperson Matt Jenkins said.

The school district’s policy comes after national and state public health agencies have in official guidelines directly required masks, although earlier this week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated previous federal guidance to recommend that everybody — vaccinated or not — wear masks indoors at schools.

Guidance from the state released on July 20 emphasizes safely returning to in-person learning, deploying layered mitigation strategies and focusing on mitigating community transmission instead of playing whack-a-mole with individual cases.

A layered prevention strategy includes strategies such as indoor mask wearing, cohorting, optimizing indoor ventilation, outdoor learning and regular testing.

Even in schools that are not requiring masks, the CDC still mandates masks on all forms of public transportation, including school buses. However, Jenkins said that masks will not be required on school buses in Montrose, for students and drivers.

“In contrast with public transportation, we have a pretty good idea of who routinely rides those school buses,” Jenkins said. He added that the school district keeps rosters of the students who ride the bus.

Other school districts on the Western Slope that have already announced mask policies also opted to eschew mandating face coverings. Both Delta County 50J and Mesa County Valley School District announced earlier this month that masks will not be required. School districts in Ridgway and Ouray will be announcing their policies in the beginning of August.

Montrose’s policy does not include restrictions on attendees at sporting events. The first scheduled athletic event that will be open to the public is in early August.

This fall’s COVID policy comes with the caveat that the plan is “subject to change relative to current local public health conditions.”

The state recommended that districts should consider deploying “higher precautionary measures,” including masking and increased physical distancing, in communities with low vaccination rates and higher community transmission.

Broader CDC guidelines for mask-wearing were also updated on July 27 to encourage people in counties with high community spread to wear masks.

As of July 29, the CDC has classified Montrose County as an area with high levels of community transmission with a seven-day incidence rate of 100 cases per 100,000 residents.

Vaccinations encouraged, but not required

At least 65% of district staff have already gotten inoculated, as the district’s director of human resources previously told the Montrose Daily Press. Less than half of county residents eligible for the vaccine have received at least one dose, which is significantly lower than the statewide average.

Jenkins said that the district is not mandating vaccination for district employees and students 12 and older at this time. He cited a July 27 announcement from Gov. Jared Polis’ office that the state of Colorado will not yet be mandating vaccines for the state’s civil servants.

Although Montrose County School District is not requiring vaccines for eligible students and staff, the district is strongly advising people who have not yet gotten inoculated to do so.

“The vaccine is an effective way that we’re going to end the pandemic,” Jenkins said.

The district is planning on offering opt-in vaccination clinics for eligible students and staff. Parents will be required to give consent for students to be vaccinated. Colorado is one of 41 states that require parental consent for vaccinations.

Thousands of colleges and universities around the country have announced vaccine requirements for students and staff. Western State University in Gunnison is requiring vaccines, while Colorado Mesa University has announced that they will not be.

Schools can verify students’ vaccination status through the Colorado Immunization Information System, a statewide registry of vaccination records, without obtaining written consent from families. The district cannot search the CIIS for employee vaccination records.

“At this time, we don’t have any interest in doing that,” Jenkins said about verifying student vaccinations through the CIIS.

However, students and staff will need to provide proof of vaccination when seeking an exemption from a mandatory quarantine when close contact with a COVID-positive individual is confirmed.

Quarantines and cohorts

This fall’s quarantine policy is less extensive than last year’s, which required 14-day quarantines for all members of a cohort.

Jenkins said that quarantining is a “disruptive process” that can “create challenges” for working parents. Because of increased vaccinations and knowledge about the coronavirus, the district felt comfortable relaxing quarantining requirements from last year.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment guidance states that if over 70% of unvaccinated staff and students are participating in weekly screening, quarantines for “routine classroom exposure” are not required. MCSD will only require unvaccinated students and staff to quarantine after potential exposure is confirmed, but vaccinated individuals can opt-out of quarantining if they verify vaccination records with the district.

Cohorting students, or restricting movement and social interaction to specific classrooms and groups of students, was a vital part of how schools nationwide attempted to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

This fall, Jenkins said that the district is still encouraging cohorting, but principals will have the ultimate decision about the extent to which cohorting is implemented in their schools.

“Insofar as it is feasible to continue cohorting, we’re encouraging building leaders to do that because it will make contact tracing easier,” Jenkins said, “but we’re not requiring that and we’re not going to do that to a degree that disrupts the instructional process similar to what it did last year.”

In lieu of quarantining by cohort, the district’s policy states that mandatory quarantines will only be among “prolonged close contacts within a six foot bubble of the COVID positive individual,” which will be determined through contact tracing.

Testing program TBD

MCSD will continue to offer testing and is awaiting specific plans from the CDPHE to implement regular precautionary screening.

The Colorado Sun reported earlier this month that CDPHE has earmarked $173 million in federal funds to deploy extensive testing programs throughout the state’s 178 school districts.

Regular testing of individuals was implemented by many educational institutions last fall to monitor for COVID outbreaks. Surveillance testing involves testing a broad segment of a target population for COVID whether or not they are exhibiting symptoms.

Jenkins said that the district is still waiting on specific details from the state about the program. The frequency and locations of testing are still to be determined, but Jenkins emphasized that it will not be mandatory.

What do you think about the district’s new COVID policy? Email or call 970-252-7031 to share your thoughts.

Anna Lynn Winfrey is a staff writer for the Montrose Daily Press.

Anna Lynn Winfrey is a staff writer for the Montrose Daily Press.

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