Coloradans are sharply divided over a lot of issues, so it’s no surprise they’re evenly split on the hot topic of the moment — whether to mask up their kids for school.

As reported Thursday in The Gazette, a new survey conducted by Louisville-based political polling firm Magellan Strategies found 50 percent of Colorado parents oppose mask mandates for public-school students in grades K-12. Yet, 48 percent of the parents polled support requiring masks. As surveys go, that amounts to a tie.

And as on so many other issues facing our state, their differences reflect partisan loyalties. Fully 83% of Democrats said masks should be required in school — while 79% of Republicans were opposed. Colorado’s largest voting bloc, the unaffiliated, opposed mask mandates 56-43.

The survey findings come as Colorado’s largest school districts continue to tweak their mask policies amid the start of school.

"The state is literally split down the middle over whether kids should be wearing masks to schools," Magellan's Ryan Winger told The Gazette. "It seems like opinions have really hardened, too, especially among Republicans and Democratic partisans.”

Accordingly, there have been heated exchanges over mask mandates up and down the Front Range and across the state. And the acrimony has been especially pronounced when it comes to schools. Some parents fear for their children’s physical health. Others just as fervently worry about children’s mental health as the seemingly perpetual crisis drags on.

Masks aren’t the only bone of contention, either, on the COVID war front. The Magellan survey found a similar split on parental views of the COVID vaccine. When parents were asked whether high school students should have to provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination to attend school in-person, 50% said no and 47% said yes. Support among parents was lower for a student vaccination requirement for middle schoolers; 52% percent were opposed and only 44% were in favor.

The face-off of course offers little comfort, and even less guidance, to public officials. Yet, there may be some things about mask mandates that most Coloradans could agree on.

Among them is that all parents probably long for a return to normal as soon as possible; masks clearly won’t be part of that. Indeed, as Gazette columnist Jimmy Sengenberger points out in a piece he penned for our news affiliate, prolonged mask use can pose problems for young children’s development.

Among the research Sengenberger cites is a 2018 study that finds, “Although our experience of the world is multimodal (we see objects, hear sounds, feel texture, smell odors, and taste flavors), visual signals and languages are key social signals in humans … Among visual signals, facial expressions (FE) are crucial components of emotional signals. They allow people to understand and express not only emotions … but also social motivation …”

Given the high priority of helping our children emerge from crisis mode ASAP, another thing most Coloradans should be able to agree on is keeping decisions on mask mandates, vaccine requirements and the like as local as possible. That will ensure parents are plugged into the process, and that they have a better chance of making their voices heard.

Local school districts and county commissions aren’t guaranteed to make the right call, but their decisions are likelier to be informed by parental input — which has had too little influence to date in this pandemic. Local government is more likely to look at the overall impact of policies because it gets feedback, up close and personal, from the people most affected by those policies.

That’s why Douglas County and most recently Adams County commissioners have voted to opt out of a public health order by their regional health department requiring younger students and their adult staff be masked in school. The counties hear from parents and must balance wide-ranging priorities with the minimal risk COVID poses to kids. By contrast, the public health bureaucracy, especially at the state level, is buffered from rank-and-file parents and can operate in vacuum in which “kill COVID at all costs” is the only item on the agenda.

This week’s survey findings underscore how divisive masks and vaccinations have become amid COVID fatigue in Colorado. Which is why it makes all the more sense to keep policy decisions local. They can be most closely tailored to weigh competing interests among adamantly opposed views. Local decision making also can respond most nimbly to changing conditions amid a pandemic.

As Thomas Jefferson observed, “The government closest to the people serves the people best.” It’s as true today in countering COVID-19 as it was in Jefferson’s time.

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