Colorado school COVID guidance: Masks not required, quarantine rules relaxed

Parents and students wearing masks walk to school.
Masked students arrive at Hodgkins Leadership Academy in Westminster on first day of school in August 2020. (Hyoung Chang / The Denver Post)

Colorado students, teachers, and school staff who are vaccinated won’t have to wear masks at school and won’t have to quarantine after COVID exposure, state health officials said in new guidance released for the 2021-22 school year.

Masks are recommended — but not required — for people who are not vaccinated, which currently includes all children under 12. School districts could choose to set stricter policies. The recommendation matches school guidance released earlier this month by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

“Masking is an especially critical strategy when a community is at higher risk of transmission,” state health officials wrote. “Schools should create an accepting environment for parents and students who choose to use masks even when they are not required.” 

Some Colorado school districts have already announced they won’t require masks next year, while in others, officials said they were weighing their options and waiting for state guidance. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that everyone continue to wear masks in school settings to create more layers of protection.

Particularly significant for school operations, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment no longer recommends that people who are exposed to COVID in a routine classroom setting quarantine at all — provided they weren’t engaged in a higher risk activity like singing or contact sports and that their community has high vaccination rates and low community transmission.

For much of last school year, classroom quarantines frequently disrupted in-person learning, leading some superintendents to call for the state to end the practice. In describing the shift, state public health officials said it’s important to keep children safe and healthy, but children’s well-being extends beyond the risk of COVID.

“We want to make sure that schools remain a safe place, and this plan outlines ways to reduce potential transmission of COVID-19 in the school setting, while facilitating in-person learning,” CDPHE executive director Jill Hunsaker Ryan said in a press release announcing the new guidance.

The state guidance, released Tuesday evening, calls for different approaches in communities with high vaccination rates and low community transmission and those with low vaccination rates and high community transmission. COVID and vaccination rates vary significantly around the state. Mesa County, in particular, with vaccination rates around 42%, has become a hotspot for the Delta variant, and cases have strained hospital capacity there. 

But the guidance is just that — recommendations — and school districts and local public health agencies have the authority to set policy.

“This guidance strongly recommends local leaders and school leaders take a layered approach to prevention,” health officials wrote, including ventilation, staying home when sick, and frequent hand-washing. “Communities with higher rates of transmission and low vaccination rates should continue to take heightened COVID-19 precautions. Local public health still has the authority to enforce local public health orders, which may include quarantine requirements.”

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The state no longer recommends quarantining of close contacts in school settings, even for unvaccinated students, in counties where at least 70% of eligible people have received at least one dose of the vaccine and case rates are not above 35 per 100,000 people in a seven-day period — or in school buildings with similarly high vaccination rates and a weekly testing regime.

However, in counties and schools with lower vaccination rates, higher case rates, and no plan for frequent testing, state health officials continue to recommend quarantine for close contacts. The guidance also recommends that people exposed outside a school setting continue to quarantine. Large outbreaks or the emergence of new variants could also lead to quarantine requirements.

The guidance cites contact sports, indoor sports, band, and choir as activities that are higher risk and require special precautions, such as routine testing and quarantine after exposure.

“During the spring 2021 semester, outbreaks of COVID 19 often originated with these groups of students and then spread to the larger school community, disrupting learning,” the guidance states.

State health officials continue to stress the importance of vaccination. Rates vary widely around the state, and fewer than half of eligible students ages 12 to 18 are currently vaccinated, with just a few weeks to go before school starts.

State Epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy pointed to the steep decline in hospitalizations and deaths in counties with high vaccination rates. At the same time, she noted that schools serve a large unvaccinated population and will for many months to come. It’s not clear when vaccines for younger children will be approved by federal regulators. 

“Our unvaccinated Coloradans remain vulnerable to the new variants, especially the Delta variant, which appears to be more likely to make young people ill than previous variants,” she said in a statement. “Because many students have yet to be vaccinated and students under 12 are not yet eligible for the vaccine, we must continue to remain vigilant, take important mitigation steps that can reduce transmission of COVID-19, and address outbreaks in a safe and thoughtful manner.” 

Read the full guidance here.

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