Polis announces new restrictions but urges Colorado schools to stay open

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis speaks during a May press conference.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis wants schools to remain open at least for preschool and elementary students. (Helen Richardson / The Denver Post)

Even as more Colorado school districts announce moves to remote learning, Gov. Jared Polis urged schools to remain open at least for preschool and elementary students while promising resources to help make that possible.

Polis made the push during a Tuesday news conference in which he laid out new restrictions on businesses while stopping short of a stay-at-home order. The restrictions do not apply to schools, and Polis outlined plans to provide schools with additional funding for outdoor classrooms, testing, and protective equipment. 

He also announced he will call a special session to ask state lawmakers to set aside more money meant to help the state’s economy, including funds to support child care providers.

“Whatever schools and districts need to be able to get back safely, we want to support that,” Polis said.

Amid an alarming increase in cases, at least 20 of the state’s 30 largest school districts have already switched to remote learning or plan to do so after Thanksgiving. A number of smaller suburban and rural districts have done so as well. Many school districts have pointed to operational challenges related to staffing and quarantines in making the decision to go remote.

Polis said he wants districts to keep pre-kindergarten through fifth grade students in class despite an increase in outbreaks and more counties moving to stricter state guidelines meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Polis said data shows transmission in elementary schools is lower than in many other activities.

“We feel that based on the data,” Polis said, “for many families and for many kids, that is the safest place they can be with the safety parameters that we have at school.”

Meanwhile, middle schools can do either in-person or remote, but high-risk areas such as high schools and higher education institutions should limit in-person classes for students, Polis said.

Polis did not answer a direct question about how the state could help districts with operational challenges. He reiterated that he wants districts to offer in-person education at all levels on the state’s dial system, which sets restrictions based on a number of metrics related to community transmission and hospital capacity.

Last week, state public health officials issued a report on the safety of in-person school that also did not address the staffing problems and logistical issues created by frequent quarantines.

At the time, Bret Miles, head of the Colorado Association of School Executives, which represents superintendents, said community rates of COVID-19 and the state’s quarantine rules created the conditions in which schools operate, including decisions to move to remote learning.

In an emailed statement, the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, praised Polis for calling a special session and pledging more assistance to schools, but expressed “disappointment” that he wants elementary students to attend school in person in these circumstances.

“Most counties have no specific community mitigation strategies in place to slow the community spread so that schools can open safely for students and educators,” union President Amie Baca-Oehlert said.

At the same time, some parents have called for the state to allow schools to take a more targeted approach to quarantine to keep more staff in the classroom and more buildings open.

Colorado coronavirus cases have ballooned to record highs in recent weeks, including in the number of cases and overall positivity rate among Coloradans. Polis said this is the riskiest it has been for Colorado since the start of the pandemic. Hospitals are reporting staffing shortages and other strains on the system.

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