New guidance urges Colorado school districts to require masks, but Polis sees no need for state mandate

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.
A growing number of Colorado students attend schools with mask mandates, whether through district policy or county public health order. (Eli Imadali for Chalkbeat)

Amid a sharp increase in school outbreaks and COVID cases among children, Colorado’s state health department issued new guidance Friday that more forcefully recommends that schools require masks, even as Gov. Jared Polis made clear that he has no plans to make sure that they do.

“There are governors who have prohibited mask requirements in schools,” Polis said at a news conference. “Where we have come out is that you absolutely can wear a mask, even if you live in a district that doesn’t require it. It’s a decision that is a good decision, and one that students should make, particularly if they are unvaccinated.” 

The governor’s remarks are in keeping with the local control approach the state has adopted this school year.  In July, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment adopted federal guidance that recommended everyone wear masks in school settings regardless of vaccination status, but state health officials have not required any particular safety measures. Even quarantine procedures are left up to school districts and local health departments.

Most Colorado school districts started the school year with masks recommended but not required. A month into the school year, after heated public hearings and disruptive quarantines, the landscape has changed. Most Colorado students attend schools that require masks, either because a county health department requires it or the district changed its policy. However, a majority of districts still leave masking decisions up to individuals. 

The new state guidance is not different in substance from July’s guidance, but may give a nudge — or political cover — to districts that have been on the fence. “CDPHE recommends local public health agencies and school districts implement universal mask requirements for all individuals entering K-12 schools in Colorado,” it reads. “This is especially important in settings where vaccination rates are low and where many students are not yet eligible for vaccination.” The new guidance also raises the bar for using community vaccination rates to skip quarantine from 70% to 80% and places more emphasis on improving ventilation. 

Polis made his remarks a day after President Joe Biden called on states to require vaccines for school staff and implement widespread COVID testing in schools. Polis said the state is waiting for information on how the federal government’s vaccine requirement for larger employers might affect public employers, such as the state and school districts. 

Denver and Aurora school districts require staff to be vaccinated, but most Colorado districts do not. A few are requiring unvaccinated staff to get tested regularly. Colorado already has rolled out a COVID testing program for schools — Polis again pitched the benefits Friday — but schools have shown limited interest. 

Since the start of the school year, cases in children have increased dramatically, with children ages 6-11 who are ineligible to be vaccinated facing the highest rates in the state. Seventeen children were hospitalized due to COVID as of Friday.

State public health officials say school is not the only reason cases are rising among children — sports and gatherings also play a role — but they are seeing transmission in school settings. 

This week, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported 80 active outbreaks in school settings, double the week before. 

Asked if giving school districts so much autonomy is working, Polis said that most students are able to attend school, and there are still pediatric hospital beds available.

“In our state, we want to empower and equip our superintendents, in consultation with county health departments, to have the tools they need to retain in-person education in a way that works in each community,” he said. “There are classes and, in some cases, schools that have to go to quarantine for a period of time to prevent further outbreaks, but by and large, kids are in classrooms across our state. That is very important.”

The state is aware of at least 19 schools that have moved at least one class to remote learning due to COVID. There are more than 2,300 public and private K-12 schools in the state. 

While 75% of Colorado residents age 12 and up have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine, hospitalizations and deaths continue to rise. Cases may be leveling off, but State Epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy said it’s too soon to know if it’s a real decrease in new cases or a function of delayed testing and reporting over the Labor Day holiday.

At the press conference, state health officials warned that Colorado has fewer than 200 available ICU beds, fewer than at any point in the pandemic, and urged people to get vaccinated. However, Polis said the 197 available ICU beds are better than the zero available in some states. Colorado has 58 pediatric ICU beds, 24 of which are occupied. Polis said 17 children are currently hospitalized with COVID in the state.  

“We are currently not in jeopardy of exceeding our pediatric or our adult capacity for hospital beds in Colorado, but we continue to track that regularly,” he said.

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