Eighty-one doctors with children in the Cherry Creek School District signed a letter sent to district leaders this week, chastising the decision to make masks voluntary for its 55,000 students as cases of COVID-19 continue to spread in Colorado.

“Without mandates, it will be impossible to ensure that unvaccinated children are protecting themselves and others,” reads the physicians’ letter, which was sent to Superintendent Christopher Smith on Monday. “Without mask mandates, you are ensuring a COVID outbreak in your schools where vaccination rates are not optimal.”

Meanwhile, the board of Douglas County commissioners sent the opposite message this week, putting out a statement on the county school district’s decision to recommend, but not require, masks for students and staff.

“At this time, based on current public health data, Douglas County has no interest in issuing nor supporting additional mask mandates …” the commissioners said. “We would respectfully encourage our colleagues with the Douglas County School District, charter, and private schools to continue to support citizens’ freedom to choose, including students and their parents.”

The contrasting messages constitute the latest salvo in a heated battle over whether mask mandates in school are necessary or overkill, as more school districts roll out their coronavirus protocols for the 2021-2022 academic year.

On Tuesday, Littleton Public Schools updated its mask protocols by requiring unvaccinated employees to wear a mask when they are inside schools, along with parents, volunteers and visitors regardless of vaccination status.

“As previously communicated, parents will decide whether or not their children will wear a mask in school,” the district stated.

The contagious delta variant of the virus continues to spread, raising worries about outbreaks in Colorado classrooms. But state public health data updated online Monday show that kids have low susceptibility to the worst effects of COVID-19: less than 3.5% of people 19 and younger have been hospitalized and only a quarter of 1% of that age group has died of COVID-19.

But the physicians’ letter to Cherry Creek officials notes that both the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics urge that masks be worn in school. Voluntary mask use, the doctors wrote, has the effect of “applying undue social pressure on kids to do what their friends are doing vis-a-vis masks; while some will feel pressure to wear them, I suspect most will feel pressure to not do so.”

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