(CBS4) – The Tri-County Health Department voted to require masks for all students, regardless of vaccination status. Monday’s decision also prevents individual counties – Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas – from opting out of public health orders.

“Things got a lot better, now they’ve gotten a lot worse,” said Dr. John Douglas, TCHD’s executive director.

COVID cases among Colorado kids are rising, according to newly released state data, as are the tensions about masks in schools. Douglas told CBS4’s Kelly Werthmann mandating masks in the classroom is necessary.

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“Case rates are increasing in our school age kids than any other age group. I have the statutory responsibility to act,” he said. “I felt like I didn’t have a choice.”

Douglas said even though many eligible students are getting vaccinated, the virus is spreading. Wearing masks, he said, will assure their education is not disrupted.

“We had a terrible year last year,” Douglas said. “Lots of remote learning, lots of isolation.”

That isolation drove up anxiety and depression among kids. After consulting pediatricians and mental health experts, including those at Children’s Hospital Colorado, Douglas explained masks are best for students’ mental and physical well-being.

READ MORE: State Epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy Calls Masks For Colorado Children 'Incredibly Important' In And Out Of School

“The best way to help our kids with their mental health and their physical health is to keep them in school. Keep them with their peers,” he explained. “It’s a lot better to see half of your peers’ face than to not see your peers’ face at all.”

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In an interview via Zoom, CBS4’s Kelly Werthmann asked Douglas about next steps.

“What happens though, doctor, if this mask mandate doesn’t actually help with reducing the number of cases within our schools?” she asked. “Do we go back to remote learning?”

“Well God forbid. That would be the last thing I would want to see us do,” Douglas replied.

Instead, he said the health department would consider quarantine options or possibly intermittent remote learning. For now, it’s back to masks for everyone.

“It clearly sucks,” Douglas said. “Delta sucks, the whole COVID thing sucks, but we got to deal with it, and this is the best way to deal with it to have the best year possible.”

The new order takes effect Sept. 1 and is expected to remain in effect through the end of the year.

Kelly Werthmann