DOUGLAS COUNTY, Colo. — The wants and needs when it comes to wearing masks in school change depending on where you live.
"I firmly believe and strongly believe that we need to have a strong mask mandate until elementary-aged children can get vaccinated and that's why I'm speaking out," Tom Smith said.
Smith lives in rural Douglas County and has a third-grade student at Larkspur Elementary School.
"We're having our son, he's going to go to school," Smith said. "He's been a year without his friends."
The Douglas County School District is encouraging, but not requiring masks for students 11-years-old and younger.
"I feel like the school is more reactive not proactive," Smith said.
Smith worries that the COVID-19 delta variant can harm his healthy son and others in school who are too young to be vaccinated.
"All we need is a school bus driver, a cafeteria worker, or a teacher, or somebody that's not vaccinated get into a closed environment with elementary school children who are a 100 percent unable to get a vaccine yet," Smith said.
The mask mandate that Smith wants in Douglas County is exactly what kids and families are protesting in Jefferson County. JeffCo Schools is requiring masks for students ages 3-to-11.
"We have watched our children and teens all year suffer through their mental health and this has been one of our main concerns," Lindsay Datko said. "That’s one of the main reasons we’re here today."
Datko is an organizer for a group called JeffCo Unites Kids First. She hosted a rally outside Jefferson County Public Health with hundreds of kids and families because the public health department is where the restrictions start.
"It's time to choose something that doesn't infringe on the choice of others," Datko said.
Datko said parents at the rally are willing to risk COVID exposure and their kids' physical health in exchange for better mental health.
"The harms are very real," Datko said. "It's not simple restrictions placed on our children. This is a third impacted (school) year. Their academics, their social-emotional health is being affected and it's very real, and the whole child needs to be considered."
Trying to manage the facts, recommendations and requirements is the Tri-County Health Department and Executive Director Dr. John Douglas.
"Education's vital," Douglas said. "The mental health of our children is vital and I think we're going to have a really good year."
Tri-County Health oversees all of Adams, Arapahoe, and Douglas Counties.
"We actually have 15 public school districts across the three counties," Douglas said.
Each district can make its own decisions regarding masks.
"It does make it more challenging because public health is the art of bringing science to the reality of a community including political reality," Douglas said.
He knows the changing messages from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about masks can be confusing. But, Douglas said the changes are necessary.
"If you live in a coastal community, you behave differently immediately before and during a hurricane than you do after a hurricane," Douglas said.
Datko said the mixed messages make it hard to believe the CDC.
"It's quite contradictory and we're here to say allow parents to choose for their children," Datko said.
Smith has chosen to send his son to school with a mask, even though it is not required in Douglas County.
"We're worried about how he's going to be treated when he goes to school and if he's the only one wearing a mask in class," Smith said.
>Video below: Students in Douglas County Schools heading back to classrooms Monday
Concerns about choice are coming from both sides of the mask debate.
"It's time for our children to have the same option," Datko said.
The debate has become an elemental struggle of freedom hidden behind a mask.
"(My son is) going to go to school. He's going to wear a mask. He's going to risk being mask-shamed, but we're going to let him go to school because he needs to go to school," Smith said.
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