Furor over masking policies in schools has swept across the Denver metro area as districts are faced with angry parents and shifting legal realities.
In Douglas County, commissioners broke with the Tri-County Health Department to make their own health board, which recently ruled that students, faculty and staff could opt out of Tri-County's mask mandate. The move comes after weeks of tense school-board meetings and protests.
In Cherry Creek's school board election, a candidate sued the district for not allowing her to remove her mask during forums. A federal judge ruled in the candidate's favor.
For candidates for Littleton Public Schools (LPS) Board of Education, the uproar is what they hope to avoid.
“I've heard horror stories about what's going on in districts around us like Douglas County and in Denver, and (I) didn't want to open that door,” said Jon Lisec, a software engineer, when asked why he decided to run for Littleton's school board during a recent forum.
Lisec, along with four other candidates who are competing for three seats in the current mail-in election, said Littleton's board must be open to hearing all opinions, but committed to following the legal requirements for masks in schools as set by Tri-County Health.
Littleton Public Schools has not been without its share of pushback against masks. During a Sept. 9 school board meeting, a host of parents urged the district to drop its mandate, with one parent likening masks to child abuse.
Lisec said it is still the duty of a board to listen.
“I appreciate the fact that they're taking the time to come in and express their concerns,” he said in an interview with Colorado Community Media. “What is important, what I've heard from my kids and what I've heard from their friends and other parents, is that kids are getting a better education from being in school. And so I'm in support of whatever measures we need to take to keep the kids in school right now.”
Angela Christensen, who was appointed to finish a term on the board last year and is running for election to a full term, said she hopes masks can become a choice for students and parents. But for now, LPS will comply with any public health order that keeps students learning in person, she said.
“Our schools were made to have children in them and remote or hybrid learning is maybe appropriate for a small percentage of children, but it's not the best for the greatest majority of kids,” she told CCM.
Still, Christensen said she understands why some parents have felt so emotional toward masks and pledged to continue to be a board member who listens to everyone's concerns.
“Whether it's opinions that I agree or disagree with, I want to hear it as long as it is in a respectful manner,” she said. “As a board member, I want that kind of engagement.”
For candidate Joan Anderssen, a current faculty member at Arapahoe Community College, masking is a public safety concern.
“This divisiveness, I don't understand,” she said. “Masks have been around for a long time … to me masks are a safety issue.”
Andrew Graham, another current candidate and president and CEO of a healthcare consulting firm, said while he supports following legal health requirements, there are inconsistencies with mask-wearing that have led to confusion.
“I think the policies have been fairly ambiguous,” he said. “There's somewhat of a duality of message that we're sending to our children who sit at the lunch table without masks on within close proximity to their peers.”
Dale Elliott, an Air Force veteran who is also running for a board seat, said masks were an issue that will always displease some people and that there is far from a perfect solution.
“The board is in legal hot water if they don't (follow the health requirement),” Elliott said. “It's not something that all those people who are screaming and shouting in the room seem to understand.”
Elliott said he envisioned a scenario where masked and unmasked students could split up and occupy different spaces to learn, but that, he said, would be less than ideal.
But as masks continue to be a contentious issue for schools, LPS candidates said they hoped the debate would not detract from the other important work they wish to focus on as board members.
Christensen, the incumbent, said she wants to address the district's declining enrollment rates and continue conversations with state lawmakers about improved public school funding in order to retain and attract talented staff, something Lisec said he is also prioritizing.
Anderssen, the ACC instructor, wants to continue to support LPS' Career Exploration Center to encourage children to pursue more technical skills.
Graham, the healthcare firm CEO, said LPS needs to have greater mental health resources, an issue that he said is personal to him as someone who's had direct experience with teen suicide.
Elliot has centered critical race theory, a decades-old academic concept that seeks to explain American society through the lens of systemic racism, as a cornerstone of his campaign. He labeled the concept a “cancer” and has vowed to snuff it out should it be taught in some way at LPS. The district currently does not teach the concept, which is usually found in graduate classes, and curriculum is made at the state level, not by the board.
For parents whose children will soon be in the third calendar year of schooling amid COVID, masks remain a flashpoint and candidates know there is only so much they can do to bridge divisions.
“I respect diverse perspectives and I just reiterate the science,” Anderssen said. “For some people, you can't change their mind.”