State endorses 5-day isolation, quarantine periods for Colorado schools

An elementary school student in class while wearing a mask. 
Colorado schools can adopt shorter COVID isolation and quarantine periods to match recent federal guidance for the general public, the state health department announced Friday.  (Laura Faith Kebede / Chalkbeat)

Colorado schools can adopt shorter COVID isolation and quarantine periods to match recent federal guidance for the general public, the state health department announced Friday. 

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment now recommends that students and staff who test positive for COVID isolate for five days, down from the previously recommended 10 day-period. Similarly, students and staff exposed to a close contact with COVID must quarantine for five days, also down from 10 days. 

While the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shifted to five-day isolation and quarantine guidance for the general public in late December, the agency’s school guidance still called for 10 days of isolation. That’s why some Colorado districts were waiting for word from the state about how to proceed. On Thursday, the CDC updated its own guidance on schools, and on Friday, Colorado followed.

The state’s COVID guidance is not binding for school districts, but many have chosen to follow parts of it this year.

Some districts, including the northern Colorado districts of Poudre, Thompson, and Estes Park, reopened after winter break with the previously recommended 10-day isolation and quarantine windows still in place. Others, including Denver, Douglas County, Cherry Creek, and Westminster in the metro area, Mesa County on the Western Slope, and Eagle County Schools in Colorado’s ski country, put the shorter isolation and quarantine windows into effect right away. 

The shift in isolation and quarantine guidance comes amid a statewide and nationwide surge of COVID cases due to the omicron variant, which is highly contagious but appears to cause milder illness than do other variants. 

Some education leaders hope the shorter isolation and quarantine windows will help staff return to school more quickly after being infected with or exposed to COVID, possibly helping ease the chronic staff shortages that plagued schools last fall. By the same token, shorter absences for students could mean less missed learning and more consistency. 

But some educators and others worry that the five-day guidance policies will push sick students and staff to return to school before they’re better, exacerbating the spread of COVID. 

The new state guidance specifies that in order to return after five days, people infected with COVID should be fever-free for 24 hours without fever-reducing medication and that other symptoms should have improved.

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