Polis: Vaccinated teachers, students can skip masks if districts agree

Governor Jared Polis gestures with his hand while speaking.
Gov. Jared Polis is changing Colorado’s mask requirement to a mask suggestion. (Andy Cross / The Denver Post)

In light of new federal guidance, Gov. Jared Polis announced Friday that Colorado will phase out mask requirements in schools, with fully vaccinated teachers and students allowed to stop wearing masks now — if their districts agree.

“You can show your faces these last few weeks of school,” Polis said at a news conference updating the state’s mask rules.

Colorado has had a mask mandate for people 11 and older since July 15. Many but not all school districts also require younger students to wear masks in the classroom. 

On Thursday, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that people who are fully vaccinated no longer have to wear masks indoors but should still follow state and local rules. 

Going forward, Colorado’s mask mandate is now a “mask suggestion,” Polis said. People who are vaccinated don’t have to wear a mask in most settings. People who are not vaccinated are strongly encouraged but not required to wear a mask.

Polis laid out a few exceptions. Until June 1, masks are still required in schools and child care centers, jails and prisons, and health care settings. However, school districts can choose to allow vaccinated students and staff to go without masks or maintain stricter mask policies.

“I’m excited because I never really liked wearing a mask very much,” Polis said. “I’m very happy to be fully vaccinated. It’s an immense relief to me and my family that we’re protected. While the pandemic isn’t over, as somebody who is vaccinated, for me, it is largely over, and if you’re vaccinated, for you, it is largely over. 

“And if you are not vaccinated, please, feel the urgency of this moment, the fact that all these restrictions are going away June 1, to take that opportunity to get protected and end the pandemic for yourself and your family.”

An estimated 40% of Coloradans are fully immunized against COVID-19, according to state data. There are also significant differences based on race and ethnicity, with white people more likely to be vaccinated than Black or Hispanic Coloradans.

Teachers and school staff have had access to the COVID-19 vaccine since February, and state officials believe a majority are vaccinated. Students ages 16 and 17 became eligible in April. Students 12 to 15 years old just became eligible this week.

Children younger than 12 and people with certain medical conditions still cannot get vaccinated.

The change caught school leaders off guard, with Superintendent Scott Siegfried of the suburban Cherry Creek district calling it “policy by press conference.” It’s not clear how many districts will change their policies in the final weeks of this school year. Support for mask-wearing varies widely around the state.

Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, said in an email that it will maintain mask requirements this school year and continues to work with public health officials on what the policy should be next year.

Mesa County District 51 on the Western Slope and the Greeley-Evans School District in Weld County both said they would not be making changes with just a week left.

“School is out next week for us and we are staying the course,” Greeley-Evans spokesperson Theresa Myers said in an email. “There is no way we can tell for sure who has been vaccinated and who hasn’t. We are still quarantining dozens of cohorts a week.”

Jeffco Public Schools announced that all students and staff would have to keep wearing masks inside school buildings, but adults could take off their masks for staff meetings if everyone present is fully vaccinated. In addition, students will be able to take masks off for recess and other outdoor activities.

Douglas Bissonette, superintendent of the Elizabeth School District southeast of Denver, said he would follow the new governor’s order.

The Adams 12 district said it would not change its policy for the school year, but would revisit protocols for summer school. In the Douglas County School District, officials said they were waiting for written guidance from the state public health department.

A revised public health order released by the governor’s office late Friday says that fully vaccinated people, including children, can remove their masks in school settings where the teacher or caregiver has provided proof of vaccination. A spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said that even vaccinated students must remain masked if the teacher is unvaccinated.

The order does not say whether students would also have to provide proof of vaccination. Late Monday, a spokesperson for the governor’s office said schools could choose whether to ask students for evidence of vaccination.

Adding further confusion, the CDC issued additional guidance on Saturday saying that K-12 schools “should prioritize universal and correct use of masks” as part of a layered protection strategy that also includes vaccination and physical distancing. On Monday, the governor’s office described Colorado’s order as “closely aligned” with the CDC guidance, despite the clear differences.

Describing it as private health information, many school districts have not tracked the vaccination status of employees or students. While the Aurora school district has said it will require the vaccine for staff this fall, most school districts have not made a decision. 

Polis said school employees or students who wish to keep their vaccination status private should continue to wear a mask, just like unvaccinated people.

Siegfried said changing the mask policy would require creating a system to monitor and enforce vaccination status, and that doesn’t make sense with so little time left in the school year.

“I would have to have someone show me their vaccination card, and then they would need some way to prove it,” he said. “Do I give them a bracelet?”

Siegfried believes masks and other precautions have kept schools relatively safe. More meaningful changes for students, he said, would be doing away with quarantine requirements so that students don’t miss the final weeks of school and relaxing restrictions on large gatherings so more people can attend graduation ceremonies.

Siegfried was one of a dozen superintendents who recently signed a letter asking the state to change its quarantine rules. With COVID cases high and vaccination rates low among teenagers, the state has not acted on that request. Dr. Sean O’Leary, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Colorado and vice chair of the infectious disease committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics, recently told Chalkbeat he thinks it’s too soon to change quarantine rules.

The mask requirement also remains in effect through June 1 for gatherings of more than 500 people.

Polis said vaccination provides much better protection than masks and unvaccinated people should not rely on the “crutch” of other people wearing masks. Instead, he urged them to get vaccinated. 

Polis said businesses can set their own policies — requiring masks, asking to see vaccination cards, or going by the honor system. 

Regardless of your vaccination status, Polis said, you should wear a mask if asked to do so.

This story has been updated with new CDC guidance issued Saturday, information from the Jeffco and Elizabeth school districts released Sunday, and additional information from the governor’s office provided Monday.

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