Colorado leaders urge school districts to require masks: ‘These trends are troubling’

A young boy with short hair reaches his hand high in the air, straining to be called on in a classroom. Two other students look toward the front of the classroom as well. They are all wearing medical masks.
Aurora Public Schools is among the school districts adopting stricter mask rules. (Eli Imadali for Chalkbeat)

As many students return to classrooms where masks are optional, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and health department Executive Director Jill Hunsaker Ryan are urging school districts and charter schools to adopt mask requirements, especially for unvaccinated people, to protect students and make sure they can stay in school.

Colorado has left decisions about COVID safety protocols up to local leaders, even as the Colorado Department of Public Health Environment adopted the CDC guidance that calls for everyone to wear masks in school settings, regardless of vaccination status. But most school districts and many independent charter schools have only recommended masks, not required them. 

In a letter sent Tuesday to superintendents and charter school leaders, Polis and Ryan noted the alarming increase in COVID cases among children, including severe cases that require hospitalization, in states that decided not to institute mitigation measures such as masks. Polis and Ryan also noted the increase in quarantines and switches to remote learning that have occurred in some communities. 

“As state leaders and as parents of school aged children, these trends are troubling to us; it’s worrisome that some of Colorado’s school districts and schools might suffer the same outcome if they do not take recommended actions to protect their students and staff, and preserve in-person learning,” they wrote.

While the letter hinted that the state might impose tougher COVID protocols under certain conditions, Polis seemed to back away from that possibility at a press conference Wednesday in which he expressed respect for different values and levels of risk tolerance around the state. 

“We have a system in our state where the opinions of the majority of parents through our democratic institutions of school boards are generally reflected in the safety protocols taken in the schools,” he said. “And it’s okay that different communities and different families in different parts of our state have different risk thresholds. There is no right or wrong when it comes to risk thresholds. There’s parents who don’t let their 16-year-old drive and there’s others who do.” 

Colorado has higher vaccination rates than many of the states that are currently experiencing COVID surges, but those rates vary widely around the state. Colorado also has seen a slower increase in cases than the U.S. as a whole. Nonetheless, cases have increased steadily, and new hospital admissions are at their highest point since January and 50% higher than they were last summer, before the start of the 2020 school year. 

Earlier this year, Colorado school leaders and the State Board of Education asked Colorado to let school safety measures be decided at the local level. Polis agreed, even letting the state of emergency that gave him broader powers expire. The state’s recommendations for operating school safely are just that: recommendations.

That has led to a wide range of mask policies around the state. The boards of health in several of Colorado’s most populous counties have adopted requirements that either all students and staff wear masks or that all students who are younger than 12 and ineligible for vaccination wear masks, as well as staff who work with those students. These public health orders have pushed reluctant school districts to adopt stricter policies and extended mask requirements to private schools and independent charter schools.

Jefferson County’s public health order went so far as to remove religious exemptions while still allowing for medical ones. The school district had received 362 religious exemptions compared to just 42 medical requests.

At the same time, the majority of school districts are not requiring masks, and some officials have even said they won’t report positive COVID cases to the health department or enforce quarantines. 

Mask policy has generated heated discussion in many communities, and Polis said maintaining civility and respect is more important than whether a district requires masks or not.

Polis reiterated Wednesday that he would not impose a statewide school mask mandate unless in-person learning or hospital capacity were threatened. But in the letter, Polis and Ryan suggested that school districts that ignore state guidance make that more likely.

“Our administration has provided school districts and school leaders with science-based guidance to return to safe in-person learning, free medical-grade masks, free testing, and we stand ready to support you in your work,” they wrote. “The state of Colorado is ready to change course if our students’ safety is threatened or compromised and in-person learning is put in jeopardy.

“So we are writing to you today to express our gratitude to those who have implemented science-based mitigation strategies, and to implore everyone to institute the strategies laid out in our guidance, including mask wearing, especially for the unvaccinated; serial testing, especially for students engaged in higher risk activities; and policies that all students and personnel stay home when sick.”

Read the full letter here

Yesenia Robles contributed reporting.

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