Judge temporarily blocks Douglas County mask-rule exemption

Elliott Wenzler
ewenzler@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Jessica Gibbs
jgibbs@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 10/26/21

A federal judge temporarily halted Douglas County’s public health order, which allowed people to opt out of mask mandates and restricted quarantines, during an Oct. 26 ruling.

U.S. District …

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Judge temporarily blocks Douglas County mask-rule exemption

Posted

A federal judge today issued a ruling sought by the Douglas County School District, temporarily halting a public health order by the county's new Board of Health that allowed people to opt out of mask mandates and restricted quarantines.

The school district announced  it is reinstating its previous quarantining policies and will require masking for everyone inside PK-12 schools unless an individual has a written medical exemption. 

Superintendent Corey Wise said in a statement the district's policy is aimed at giving every child, regardless of their circumstances, a fair shot at a safe education. 

“As a school district, we strive to do everything possible to protect the health, safety, and learning of every single child, especially our most vulnerable and those with significant health conditions who are particularly susceptible to COVID-19. Today's ruling allows us to do just that," Wise said. 

In a statement, board President David Ray called the ruling "a win for the families of students with high-risk medical conditions," and said no one should have to choose between sending their children to school and risking their health.

"All of our students deserve access to in-person learning, and the court's decision allows us to continue enacting policies that ensure students — including those with disabilities and underlying medical conditions — have the ability to do so, safely," Ray said. 

Issuing a temporary restraining order in connection with a lawsuit filed by the district, U.S. District Judge John Kane ordered the newly-formed Douglas County Health Department not to enforce the public health order for at least 14 days.

Before the public health order, the district mandated the wearing of masks inside its schools as a COVID-safety measure. The county order allowed adults to opt themselves out of the district mask rule and students to opt out with a parent's note.

“I find the risk of irreparable harm to plaintiffs is significant and they have sufficiently demonstrated that the public health order denies student plaintiffs reasonable accommodations of science-backed mask and quarantine requirements,” Kane said. 

The ruling comes after arguments were presented by the Douglas County Health Department and the school district Monday and today in support of the district's suit challenging the county health department. The suit's plaintiffs include nine families of students said to be at high risk of COVID-19.

"The order denies the students plaintiffs reasonable accommodations in the form of adequate masking and quarantining protocol necessary to provide them with equal access to public education," Kane said during his ruling.

Kane said he would revisit the issue for a possible preliminary injunction Nov. 8. 

In a statement today, the Douglas County Health Department said it disagreed with the decision.

“We remain confident that when we have more time to make a full case we will be able to demonstrate that the Douglas County Board of Health struck the proper balance of public health protection and parental involvement in health care decisions for their children," according to the statement, released through a spokesperson.

"Our order allowed the school district to continue its mask mandate even though the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment lifted its statewide mask mandate for students in July. We would continue to encourage the Douglas County Board of Education to make partners of all parents in decisions that fundamentally impact their children.”

Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon responded to the decision with a comment to reporters.

“While Douglas County continues to remain virtually without any pediatric covid hospitalizations, including students with disabilities, this school board refuses to relinquish their militant grip on kids’ and parents’ personal health care choices in order to maintain senseless, one-size-fits-all authoritarian policies,” he said.

The district and families of high risk students sued the county’s new health department Oct. 20, alleging that the agency’s new public health order violated civil rights of students with disabilities.

“No parent should be forced to choose between sending their children to school and risking their health, and no family should have to choose between access to learning and putting their child’s life in jeopardy,” district Board President David Ray said in a statement at the time. “The message is simple: In these very complex times, our most vulnerable children cannot be left behind.”

The Douglas County agency passed its first public health order on Oct. 8. The order allowed parents and guardians to opt children out of masking mandates in the county with a note saying masks negatively affected a student’s mental and physical health. Adults can opt themselves out.

The health order also placed more limits on how people without COVID symptoms could be quarantined if exposed to COVID-19.

It was that order that Kane's ruling temporarily blocked.

The district's lawsuit says in the course of five days, its "rate of mask-wearing dropped from 97% to 83%, and over 4,500 students and over 500 staff were exempted from wearing a mask" after the health order passed. 

Douglas County set up its own public health department amid a long-running dispute with the Tri-County Health Department over COVID-safety rules. Tri-County had been Dougco's public health agency for decades.

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