Emails show JCPH tried to convince schools to implement stronger mask policy

JCPH head said superintendent was acting for political reasons

Paul Albani-Burgio
palbaniburgio@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 9/8/21

A set of emails shows the frank and emotional nature of the discussions that took place between Jeffco's top school and health officials about whether — and how — to require masks in schools, …

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Emails show JCPH tried to convince schools to implement stronger mask policy

JCPH head said superintendent was acting for political reasons

Posted

A set of emails shows the frank and emotional nature of the discussions that took place between Jeffco's top school and health officials about whether — and how — to require masks in schools, included efforts by the county health head to implore the school district to implement a mask requirement herself.

The emails came to light after an area parent filed an open records request for recent correspondence between the two organizations.

In one of the emails, dated July 28, Jefferson County Public Health Executive Director Dr. Dawn Comstock pleads with Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Tracy Dorland to issue a blanket mask order for its schools, saying the school district is in a better position to do so than the health department.

“You have 100% authority over all health and safety rules in your schools and complete control over enforcing them,” Comstock wrote to Dorland. “You have the ability to implement a mask order and to enforce it.”

Comstock then told Dorland that she would be willing to have Dorland tell the public she pushed for the mask order.

“You also know I will support you 100% — I will even be willing to say I pressured you to make this decision so you can say you took action that you knew would protect students but would also protect the school culture, etc. in order to avoid having the public health authority dictate rules that would not be sensitive to the needs of students and their parents,” she wrote.

Concerned about court rulings

However, Comstock also explained in the same email that she did not see it as sensible for JCPH to issue its own public health order regarding masks in schools because such orders are only supposed to be a last resort. She also expressed concern that the “current unpredictable courts” could rule against an order issued by JCPH and damage JCPH's future authority in the process.

“You are choosing not to implement rules for purely political reasons,” Comstock also wrote. “You are bowing to pressure from misinformed parents in a way that clearly puts all of the students in your charge at unnecessary and unacceptable levels of risk.”

Comstock then said that if Dorland and the district failed to enact a mask requirement, they would be “undermining their ability to act and enforce all of their current and future safety rules.” In one particularly vivid passage, Comstock suggests that the district's ability to enforce other health and safety-related rules could be at risk.

“What happens when parents start sending their children to school with high fevers and whilst vomiting and refuse to come pick them up or to keep them home the next day because 'it is my right to do what I think is best for my child's health?' ... What happens if parents begin sending children to school armed because they fear for their safety in this era of school shootings and do so touting the Second Amendment? If enough parents do so and those parents begin challenging your weapons bans in court you will have to turn to Colorado Department of Education, the State, or me to receive the authority to force compliance”

“Heck, what happens if large numbers of students blatantly begin violating your dress codes or honor codes in ways you feel are bullying or otherwise detrimental to student wellness and when you try to suspend them they take you to court?”

Comstock promised a more sweeping order

Comstock concludes the email by saying that if she did issue a PHO of her own for schools, it would likely go beyond requiring masks to include other steps that she deems necessary to best protect students, including a vaccination requirement for school staff, a weekly testing requirement for unvaccinated students and a ban on indoor extracurricular activities.

“If I am going to take that step that will so damage the future authority of public health. I will do exactly what is truly needed to prioritize, emphasize, and protect in-person educational activities,” she wrote.

The 309 pages of emails, which were obtained via a Colorado Open Records Act request, do not include any further response from Dorland. However, in an email sent to Comstock earlier that morning, Dorland said she would “fully support a public health order that is put in place by a public health authority.”

“I continue to believe a local, state or national public health order is the best option to support our community and other communities with this issue,” Dorland wrote.

The July 28 email exchange came two days before the district release new masking guidelines requiring that all students 12-and-under be masked at school but allowing both vaccinated and unvaccinated students over 12 to be unmasked if they so chose.

Then, on Aug. 16, Comstock followed through on her promise to issue a public health order requiring masks for everyone 2-and-over in schools and daycare centers regardless of vaccination status (this has since been amended to apply to everyone 3-and-over).

The order also requires that all faculty and staff either be vaccinated or face weekly testing. Unvaccinated students participating in extracurricular activities must also face weekly testing under the order.

However, the order stops short of mandating testing for all unvaccinated students (unless they are participating in extracurricular activities) and canceling all indoor extracurricular activities, as Comstock had indicated she might.

District, JCPH response

Following the public release of the emails, Colorado Community Media reached out to both Dorland and Comstock to ask how they would approach and navigate their relationship going forward, particularly in regards to controlling the spread of COVID-19 in school.

“The district will continue to work to balance public health priorities, protocols and orders with ensuring we are meeting the needs of all Jeffco students with as much uninterrupted in-person learning as possible, and in continued service to our community,” Dorland said.

JCPH also provided the following more general statement on behalf of Comstock via email.

"The email under discussion was written by JCPH Executive Director Dr. Dawn Comstock to JPS Superintendent Tracy Dorland as part of ongoing conversations about COVID-19 precautions in schools for the 2021-2022 school year and how to safely prioritize and protect in-person learning. This is only part of the extensive conversations that happened between Jefferson County Public Health and Jeffco Public Schools leaders in the midst of rising COVID-19 cases in Jeffco, Colorado and the country due to the highly transmissible Delta variant. Dr. Comstock stands behind the urgency and importance of the message conveyed in the email during this ongoing public health emergency."

The emails between Comstock and Dorland have also been subject to extensive sharing and commentary on social media, particularly by those opposed to the mask mandate.

Republican State Representative Colin Larson, whose district encompasses a large portion of South Jeffco, was among those to express criticism of Comstock following the release of the emails. In a public statement Rep. Larson said he was "deeply troubled" by the correspondence.

"The dismissive and threatening tone of her emails combined with the clear disdain for parents and families who disagree with her is totally unacceptable in a public official especially one who is unelected and therefore unaccountable," Larson said. "I urge the Jefferson County Board of Commissioners to take action to ensure that JCPH leadership is acting appropriately and in the best interest of Jeffco citizens.”

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