Poverty, hunger, lost learning all hit children hard. Colorado needs to protect them from COVID fallout, advocates say.

Children and adults wait for bagged food delivered by a school bus at Berkeley Village Mobile Home Park in Arvada, Colorado.
Colorado needs to do more to help struggling families with children, a group of advocates suggested in a Sept. 11 letter to Gov. Jared Polis . (Kathryn Scott / Special to The Denver Post)

Colorado should prioritize opening schools above opening businesses and take stronger action to stave off a looming crisis for the state’s children, 45 advocacy organizations led by the Colorado Children’s Campaign wrote in a letter to Gov. Jared Polis and other state leaders Friday.

While children are less likely to suffer the most serious health consequences from the coronavirus, they are hit harder by nearly every secondary effect of the pandemic and the efforts to contain it, the advocates wrote. Those include poverty, hunger, homelessness, and lost learning.

“Prioritizing the care of our children benefits all Coloradans,” they wrote. “By placing the needs of children and families at the center of our response we can ensure kids are in safe environments provided with the tools and skills to realize their full potential, and we can support parents who need to work so our economy can thrive.

“We are at an inflection point. The trendlines in community spread create an opening to advance strategies that support children and families. As the school year begins, families are having to make impossible choices between the education and care of their kids and meeting basic needs.”

Hundreds of thousands of Colorado students are learning remotely, some by family choice and some because their school campuses remain closed. At the same time, tens of thousands lack adequate internet access to support their learning. Families are also struggling with unprecedented job losses that threaten their housing and their ability to put food on the table. Households with children are more likely to be evicted than those made up just of adults, studies have found.

The letter asks the governor to set clear metrics for when it’s safe for schools to open, improve internet access for all students, set baseline expectations for quality remote learning, shore up child care providers, and make sure children have secure housing and enough to eat.

“What we’re seeing across all the work that we do is that kids and families need a lot right now, and there is more that the state could be doing to put children at the center of our policy response,” said Leslie Colwell, vice president of K-12 education initiatives for the Children’s Campaign. 

That starts with providing clearer guidance to school districts and communities about when it’s safe to open schools and prioritizing schools above other types of businesses that could contribute to higher rates of community spread, the letter says. 

Over the summer, Colorado did not provide any framework that would indicate when it is safe to return to the classroom. That contributed to the patchwork of school reopenings across the state. In some cases, districts in the same counties with the same health conditions made different decisions. 

In late August, after school had started, the state public health department released a draft matrix to guide local reopening decisions. The criteria suggest schools should be open for at least some in-person learning throughout the state. 

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While the letter praises this as an important step, advocates note that the matrix doesn’t mention child care centers as a distinct category and doesn’t prioritize schools above activities such as gyms and indoor dining in restaurants.

“That misses the mark,” said Erin Miller, vice president of health initiatives for the Children’s Campaign. “Having kids in school and child care is so critical for parents who need to be at work; those should be prioritized.”

“Schools and child care programs should be among our last institutions to close and the very first to open, as these settings directly support our state’s economic recovery,” the letter says. “Therefore, the dial should be revised to prioritize the reopening of in-person schools and child care settings, before businesses that pose a significant risk of community spread.”

Advocates said the state also needs to give more direct guidance to school districts to prioritize in-person learning for younger elementary students, students with disabilities, and others who are particularly poorly served in a remote environment. In some districts, schools don’t have the infrastructure to serve all students safely, Miller said, and the state should be explicit about using an equity lens to determine which students get priority.

The letter also calls for higher and more uniform standards for what constitutes quality remote learning and for putting more resources into improving online education for those circumstances in which school isn’t safe. The state also needs to do more to ensure all students have internet access. Polis and Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes recently announced a $2 million investment in expanding internet access, but it is not expected to fully meet the need

As families look outside the school system for help and form learning pods, the state should take a greater oversight role and ensure that adults caring for children have, at a minimum, a background check, the letter says. Advocates said the state could do more to encourage school districts to facilitate safe learning spaces even when schools are closed and to steer families toward licensed care.

In addition, the letter calls on the state to do more to ensure all children have access to nutritious meals and to prevent evictions.

“We have children who are starting their semester in a hotel room because their family has been evicted,” said Jack Regenbogen of the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, an advocacy group that works on housing and other issues facing low-income families. “This was a problem before, but it’s more dangerous now. What’s unique right now is that a lot of families are having to make tough choices about whether they go back to work while their children are learning from home.”

Earlier this summer, Polis let a state moratorium on evictions expire. Renters have some protections under new rules from the Centers for Disease Control, but there are too many loopholes to protect children, Regenbogen said. 

In addition to stopping evictions now, the letter calls on Polis to require landlords to offer renters reasonable repayment plans to help them stay in their housing long term.

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Correction: This article has been updated with the correct spelling of Jack Regenbogen’s name.

Read the full letter and see who signed it below.

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