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“Surrounded by toxicity”: As Colorado schools reopen, pandemic-fueled politics overwhelm classrooms

The school year is starting off in turmoil as mask mandates in some districts divide families and educators.

First-graders are seen on their second day of school on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021, at Second Creek Elementary School in Commerce City. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)
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The faces of parents riled up by mask mandates in schools feels all too familiar to Mark Sass. It reminds him of the fury outside of schools during desegregation.

And at schools like Legacy High School in Broomfield, he says, all the rancor over the coronavirus is keeping teachers from what counts: figuring out how to keep kids safe. 

“The political and community atmosphere right now is just toxic and we want to do everything we can to protect (students), to model for them how we should engage in discourse, and yet we’re just surrounded by toxicity,” said Sass, a part-time social studies teacher at Legacy High School and Teach Plus executive director for Colorado.

That “toxicity” has led to deputies posting up in schools, tense public meetings that draw thousands of comments, and a flood of written complaints that keep teachers and administrators scrambling to defend their protocols even as they remain in flux. All the extra turmoil is unsettling schools when they should be focused on students, some advocates say.

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The drama comes as the delta variant threatens schools’ ability to stay open, raising the possibility that the pandemic will continue disrupting students’ lives this year.

The vitriol has gotten so bad that it’s captured the attention of Gov. Jared Polis, who has so far left decisions about pandemic protocols up to individual districts and is now pleading for calm.

“There are inevitably, in all districts in our state, parents who are thrilled with their local policies and parents who are disappointed,” Polis said Wednesday during a news conference. “What I want to make sure that we send as a message to folks is: Even if you’re disappointed with your own district’s or county’s (policies) on exactly when or if masks should be worn, there’s actually something more important. That’s civility and respect.”

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He acknowledged that it’s OK to disagree with leaders’ decisions, but he urged people to avoid threats, violence and “getting in the way of education.” Polis said districts and local health departments are doing the best they can, “and that’s not an easy job.”

His message follows a wave of escalating tensions around a newly established mask mandate in Eagle County Schools, where district and community officials were so concerned that law enforcement agencies stationed officers in schools this week to defuse any conflicts. The district Friday announced a policy requiring masks in all preschool, elementary and middle schools. The district asked parents to avoid getting into mask debates with teachers and other workers when they picked up and dropped off their children. And there were not any organized protests at any of the district’s schools.

“Please allow schools to open without additional stressors that only serve to compound and prolong the social/emotional impact on our children,” reads a statement from the district.

Sean Koenig was picking up his two kids after their first day at Eagle Elementary and Eagle Middle School on Monday. They were unlocking their bikes from the school yard and enjoying some mask-free moments. 

“Look, no one wants to wear a mask, but my desire needs to take a backseat to the needs of the community,” Koenig said. “I’m just stoked to have them back in-person. If that’s what gets them back in the classroom and with each other … I’m all for it.”

Koenig saw law enforcement at Eagle Elementary School on Monday morning. They were not there in the afternoon. 

“They didn’t need to be there,” he said. “But I went up and thanked them afterward. We have friends who are anti-maskers and even she said this is not the time or place to do something about masks if you are upset about the mask mandate.”

Law enforcement was not as visible on Tuesday. A sole officer was chatting with Eagle Middle School students Tuesday morning. He made sure to note he was not enforcing mask guidelines but only participating in his regular patrol and school resource officer duties.

District spokesperson Matthew Miano wrote in an email that Eagle County Schools has tried “​​to de-escalate the controversy around masks in our schools.”

“We have seen as much support for masks as we have seen opposition, and ultimately we are thankful to be in person five days a week to start the year,” Miano said.

Denver Public Schools, Colorado’s largest school district, announced earlier this month that all students, staff and visitors would be required to wear masks inside schools regardless of their vaccination status, in line with guidance released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Teachers and school staff must also be fully vaccinated by Sept. 30, per an order issued by Denver Mayor Michael Hancock.

Anahi Zaldana works on a laptop in a classroom in Newlon Elementary School early on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020. The school was one of 55 Discovery Link sites set up by Denver Public Schools where students could participate in remote learning from a school in Denver during the pandemic. (David Zalubowski, AP Photo)

The decision to mandate that all staff and students wear masks in schools came after a lot of “grappling and wrestling,” the district’s new superintendent, Alex Marrero, said. DPS turned to guidance from a variety of health agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Denver Public Health and the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment.

The district leader also listened to families. Part of Marrero’s first 100 days in office is devoted to taking time to sit down with small and large groups and have one-on-one conversations in which some families recounted the loss of loved ones to COVID-19. Others asked him why they should need to wear masks in schools if they’re not required to mask up at other public places, such as grocery stores.

Marrero said the mask policy has been mostly well received. Emails to him and board of education members have slowed compared to the many they received ahead of the district’s decision. He also doesn’t believe political tensions over health precautions are overwhelming schools more than they did when school started last year.

“I think that there was a lot more that was unknown last year, and there was a little bit of just hoping and praying that the decisions made sense,” he said.

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Other metro-area districts like Douglas County School District could update their precautions in line with guidance from local health authorities. On Tuesday, the Tri-County Health Department issued an order that all kids age 2-11 and the people working with them must wear masks in indoor school settings. More than 10,000 people gave opinions about whether the local health department should adopt a mask mandate, Colorado Community Media reported.

Douglas County commissioners are working to opt out of the public health order. If the county opts out, school districts and schools will decide if they will abide by the public health order.

Douglas County School District Superintendent Corey Wise has informed families and staff that the district will require all students in preschool through 6th grade and staff working with those students to wear masks inside schools starting on Monday.

“​​We realize this adjustment to our COVID protocols may spark a range of emotions in our community from relief to anxiety to anger,” Wise wrote in a message to district families. 

“A no-win scenario”

While the back-to-school season is often marked by jitters of excitement for teachers and students, all the uproar over safety measures like masks has cast a shadow of anxiety over the start of classes, Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, said.

“I think for the second year in a row we are starting the school year in the midst of an ongoing global pandemic,” Baca-Oehlert said. “That alone is adding stress and angst and anxiety.”

The mounting tension around mask mandates only amplifies that stress and anxiety, she said.

Baca-Oehlert still senses a level of excitement among teachers, particularly as they start the year face-to-face with students, but it’s mixed with trepidation. So much uncertainty looms over educators this year, with questions about how long they’ll be able to teach in person and what safety practices will look like.

She believes tensions in schools are more intense this year than when school started last year, blaming “pandemic fatigue” for exacerbating political divisions.

Many people are exhausted and eager to be done with the pandemic, she said, “and the unfortunate thing is that the pandemic isn’t done with us, and so we still need to prioritize our students and our educators’ health and safety.”

She hopes that district leaders, educators and families can narrow their focus to a shared goal, such as keeping classrooms open to in-person learning this school year, and that they can find agreement in implementing the health and safety measures that will make that possible.

Districts are trying to set up the best learning environments possible for students and want students and parents to feel safe entering schools, even in the midst of tremendous uncertainty, said Landon Mascareñaz, vice president of community partnership at Colorado Education Initiative, a Denver-based nonprofit that focuses on improving school systems and student achievement.

But the fierce debates over mask requirements in schools have only complicated their planning.

“For too many districts, the questions around masks have been a no-win scenario,” Mascareñaz said. “They are faced with pressures and headwinds that suggest one direction and other interests that suggest another and it’s a tough needle to thread.”

Sass, of Legacy High School in the Adams 12 Five Star Schools District, draws striking parallels between the anger sweeping across many school districts today as they enforce mask requirements and the outrage of parents who fought efforts to bring Black and white students into the same classrooms four decades ago.

It’s a “visceral reaction,” Sass said, one that plays out both emotionally and physically.

He recalls pictures of parents screaming, taunting, pointing their fingers and yelling “as if they just are not being heard.”

Sass has picked up on a more palpable sense of tension this year as teachers and students head back to school. With it comes an extra layer of stress for educators.

“When it’s a stressor on the community, it’s a stressor on the schools,” Sass said. “It’s really difficult to separate those two.”

Third-graders are seen on their second day of school on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021, at Second Creek Elementary School in Commerce City. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

During a recent lunch at school, Sass recalled another teacher raising concerns about the politics they must contend with.

“I just want to know what to say so that I don’t get a parent on my case,” the teacher said.

Sass, whose district is mandating masks indoors for all staff and students in preschool through 6th grade, said that political debates that typically dominate the national spotlight are trickling down to the local level — over masks, vaccines and what’s taught in schools. He believes people who are fed up with feeling like they don’t have a say in national politics are turning to local politics in hopes of being heard.

Students’ interests have taken a backseat to the issue of politics right now, he said.

As they welcome students back, Sass and his colleagues are tending to their emotional health above all else — not an easy feat when schools are at the center of pandemic feuds. 

Sass also wants to do his part to restore some of the trust that has eroded between parents and school districts and boards. He sees real potential in rebuilding trust with families by opening up his classroom to parents and having more one-on-one conversations with them so that they can better understand what their child is learning and what the classroom setting looks like and know that someone is listening to them.

MORE: Read more education coverage from The Colorado Sun.

But he won’t broach the subjects of masks or vaccines with parents, noting that he’s not a health expert and that those issues would only likely push him and parents further away from what he sees as the top priority — students.

Many parents are nervous as they turn their kids back over to schools, said Ariel Smith, co-founder and executive director of Transform Education Now, which works with parents to ensure access to high-quality education in Denver communities.

They want to know details about how classrooms will keep their kids safe and how strictly protocols like handwashing and masking will be enforced, Smith said.

“The first priority is that our kids stay healthy,” Smith said. “I think there’s a lot of fear around the delta variant.”

Smith has heard a variety of parent perspectives on the best way to dive into classes, including from those who align with Smith’s nonprofit in advocating for masks in schools to keep them open and operating safely.

Other parents are unvaccinated and don’t want their kids to have to wear masks in schools. Smith said her organization encourages parents to search for reliable sources of information about the science behind the virus.

She has found common ground among parents in wanting to avoid remote learning.

“But also no one wants their kids to get sick,” Smith said.

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Tiffany Baker, who has four children attending school in Douglas County School District, stands firmly behind masks in schools, primarily for the sake of her kids’ mental health. Two of her kids struggled with thoughts of suicide during remote learning. Their mental health improved significantly when they returned to in-person classes.

“I don’t feel like them wearing a face mask is going to hurt their mental health,” Baker, who lives in Highlands Ranch, said.

She also wants to protect other students who are not yet vaccinated. Her four children have gotten the vaccine, but she worries about the possibility they could spread the delta variant to their peers, particularly as school activities have picked up with the start of the school year. School assemblies, a back-to-school night, a 5K run and walk, and a back-to-school dance were all held within the first week at Highlands Ranch High School, where three of her kids are enrolled. 

Other parents like Aimee Novak-Politowicz, who has two children in Douglas County School District, oppose a mask mandate after masks proved to be “a disaster” for her kids last year. Her high schooler pursued remote learning, refusing to wear a mask all day. Her elementary school student “could hardly handle it,” Novak-Politowicz said.

“He has some special needs and it was a constant battle,” she said. “Not to mention all the extra reminding the teachers had to use for their class instead of just teaching.”

Novak-Politowicz said the school board struck “a happy medium” at the start of the school year in recommending masks but giving parents the power “to make the best choice for their child, whether mask or not.”

As the school year unfolds amid so much chaos, educators like Sass feel overwhelmed. He looks to schools to be a haven for kids, though they can’t accomplish that alone.

“We want schools to be a safe refuge for students and we need community support to pull that off,” Sass said, “and frankly we’re not getting that right now.”


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