Colorado to provide masks to teachers and school staff, governor says

Governor Jared Polis gestures with his hand while speaking.
Governor Jared Polis issued a statewide mask order July 16. (Andy Cross / The Denver Post)

Colorado will provide every school district with medical-grade masks for staff who work directly with students, Gov. Jared Polis said Thursday.

Polis made the announcement during a press conference at which he also announced a statewide mask order that goes into effect at midnight. Everyone 10 and older will be required to wear masks in public, indoor spaces. Many counties and municipalities already have mask orders, but others have resisted or opted out, creating a patchwork of practices.

The number of positive COVID tests and hospitalizations continues to rise in Colorado. State epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy said that if the current trajectory doesn’t change, the state hospital system’s ICU capacity could be exceeded by September. Among the concerning trends: an increase in cases among children, with most of those in older children and teens.

Herlihy said the increases likely are driven by more people interacting outside the home and younger people spreading the disease to older people.

Just two days ago, Polis said he would not issue a statewide mask order because he couldn’t enforce one, but Thursday he cited evidence that areas with mask orders see higher mask usage — and that masks have been proven to be a key tool for slowing the spread of the coronavirus. He also said that masks alone will not be enough and that people need to continue to limit interactions.

The announcement comes as Colorado school districts continue difficult planning for the start of the school year. Many teachers have expressed concerns about returning to the classroom, and parents are divided.

Polis said the masks were part of a broader state effort to provide schools with the resources to open safely.

“Districts have a lot of work to do,” Polis said. “The state wants to help them reach their goals. Masks are an important part of that. The state will be a partner in making sure schools have the personal protective equipment they need.”

There should be enough masks for everyone who works with students to get one mask a week. A spokesman for the governor said the masks will be KN95 masks that offer a higher level of protection than cloth or surgical masks.

Most school districts’ plans for opening require or strongly encourage teachers, staff, and students to wear masks. On social media, some teachers questioned whether one mask a week is enough and whether schools should be opening at all in this environment. 

Polis has already rolled back the opening of bars and said he hopes not to bring back other restrictions. Polis has been a strong supporter of opening schools and hasn’t talked about whether the increase in cases warrants a change in current plans for full-time, in-person instruction.

But Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman, who along with Denver Mayor Michael Hancock joined Polis in strong support of the mask order, said that school openings are on the line if Colorado cannot reduce cases.

Coffman called masks the “best, least invasive, least costly public health option that is available to us to stem the spread of the COVID-19 virus.”

“The alternatives are to shut down business and force our schools to remain closed if no preventive actions are taken and the COVID numbers increase to the point that further restrictions are required,” he said. “I know there will be some grumbling about this. I get that. It’s a mandate from government. And, yes, I get that some people will say this is a hardship. Children not being able to go to school, that’s a hardship.”

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