Polis: Colorado children will continue to learn, be fed amid school closures

Even if Colorado issues more restrictions on public life in response to the spread of the new coronavirus, schools likely will continue to distribute food to families in need, and staff members may be able to meet in person to prepare for remote learning.

At a press conference Friday, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis laid out a number of measures aimed at helping workers and small businesses affected by widespread closures. He notably did not issue a shelter-in-place order, such as the one in California, nor did he tell all but essential workers to stay home, as New York’s governor did.

Asked about what would happen to school-based meal distribution sites or necessary planning for remote learning in the event that Colorado does adopt a shelter-in-place order, Polis said: “We are never going to do anything that prevents kids from getting the food that they need, and we don’t want to prevent kids from learning.”

“Students will not lose this year of education,” he continued. “They will be ready to graduate and to move onto the next school year.”

The majority of Colorado school districts announced closures of two to three weeks starting last week. Some districts cast these closures as extended spring breaks, while others immediately rolled out plans for online learning. On Wednesday, Polis issued an order closing all schools, public and private, at least until April 17 and said that schools should prepare for remote learning.

But many districts still have work to do to put those plans in place. For example, Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest district enrolling 92,000 students, just ordered 9,000 laptop computers that will need to be distributed before remote learning begins on April 7.

Many school districts also have set up drive-through meal distribution sites that require limited staffing. Some were closed Friday for snow, and at least one site in Jefferson County had to be removed from operation this week after a member of that school community tested positive for COVID-19.

As infections become more widespread, continuing operations could become challenging, even without a shelter-in-place order. On Friday, the school district in Memphis, Tennessee, said it was suspending food distribution after a member of the nutrition services team tested positive for the coronavirus.

Free meals given out at Denver’s Cowell Elementary. (RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

In the past week, in addition to closing schools, the governor has shut Colorado’s ski resorts, ended dining in restaurants, closed tattoo parlors and hair salons, and banned gatherings larger than 10 people. Polis did not rule out the possibility of issuing more restrictions in the future, but he said he hopes existing measures will slow the spread of the disease.

Polis said earlier this week that while it is possible that schools could return to session this year, it’s “increasingly unlikely.”

At the same time, he has urged child care providers to stay open and rolled out an emergency child care system for frontline workers, such as health care professionals, in coordination with community partners.

As of Friday, Colorado has 363 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and four people have died from the disease. Public health authorities believe the confirmed cases represent a small portion of the total cases in the state and have urged anyone with mild symptoms to stay home.