In a Feb. 11 memo to families and students, Roaring Fork School District (RFSD) Superintendent Rob Stein announced the lifting of the universal face mask mandate for district schools. 

“We are moving into a new phase of the pandemic. On top of changes to public health orders in Pitkin County, decided yesterday [Feb. 10], we just received word from CDPHE [Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment] today that they will be transitioning to a routine disease control model for Covid-19 at the end of the month,” the superintendent’s memo began. “I want to update you with everything we know at this time, while recognizing that we still have some things to figure out over the next couple weeks before the new guidance goes into effect on Feb. 28.”

Stein references CDPHE’s updated “practical guide for operationalizing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s school guidance,” which includes a new section that outlines an option for K-12 schools to move away from individual case-investigation responses to a more routine disease control model for COVID-19. 

The CDPHE statement explains, “This model more closely aligns COVID-19 efforts with public health response strategies used for other infectious diseases in schools.” It further suggests Feb. 28 as the implementation date to this transition.

Citing the number of COVID-19 cases trending downward and hospitalization rates decreasing and stabilizing, Dr. Rachel Herlihy, a state epidemiologist, noted, “It is appropriate for schools to choose a more typical routine disease control model. This type of model focuses more on responding to case clusters, outbreaks, and evidence of ongoing transmission in schools, and less on individual case investigation, contact tracing, and quarantining of staff and students following school exposures.” She added, “This approach will help schools, parents, and teachers continue in-person learning with fewer disruptions, but schools should consider transitioning to this option cautiously, as moving too soon could result in an increase in transmission.” 

A growing number of states are moving to drop face mask mandates, with many school districts throughout the country following suit.  

Still, Stein emphasized, “The general approach to COVID-19 prevention remains the same and the state continues to recommend a layered approach of best practices. However, due to declining incidence of the disease, increasing hospital and healthcare system capacity, and rising levels of community immunity, the state is allowing us to reduce many of the layers of prevention that we find so restrictive. Those include: sharply reducing the use of quarantining and masking as long as the trend continues.”

Stein’s memo detailed what the transition to the new strategy promotes, including the following: 1) vaccinations add a strong layer of protection for individuals and the community; 2) isolating individuals who are sick; 3) testing and masking following illness or outbreaks; 4) supporting the use of masks by individuals who wish to use them, even when they aren’t required; and 5) a shift from contact tracing of individual cases to monitoring for clusters of cases that might need to be investigated and responded to as outbreaks.

In a statement,  CDPHE reiterated that schools currently experiencing outbreaks should continue standing mitigation strategies and wait for a resolution to the outbreak before transitioning to the new response model. 

Stein stated, the district will consult with staff members this week to ensure they “fully understand the new guidance.” In addition, RFSD scheduled an optional meeting for staff members who want to “hear from one of our local [health] experts.”, 

Stein concluded, “If you are like me, you have a lot of questions right now, such as whether the guidelines will be different for vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals, how we determine a cluster or outbreak, or when and how we provide testing. I am going to be spending a lot of time over the next few days reading the new guidance, consulting with our public health and medical experts and will share more information well before the changes go into effect on February 28.”