Colorado governor orders all schools closed to stem spreading coronavirus

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis on Wednesday evening ordered all Colorado schools closed starting Monday and extending through April 17 in a bid to stem the spread of the new coronavirus.

School districts that altogether serve more than 95% of the state’s students had already announced closures in the past week, with some small rural districts the remaining holdouts. The closure order extends to private K-12 schools, as well, but not to private preschools or child care centers.

Polis’s executive order holds significant implications for public school districts that already have closed their doors. While previously announced closures ranged in length, many districts announced plans — in retrospect, hopeful — to return before the end of March. 

Now the existing closures — Denver Public Schools called its three-week stoppage “extended spring break” — will stretch well into the spring. As the crisis deepens, no one can say when or if Colorado schools will open again this academic year.

“We are acting boldly and swiftly together to protect the health and safety of all Coloradans,” Polis said in a statement. “The science and data tell us this will get worse before it gets better. We are in this together and the state is taking the necessary actions to slow the spread of this disease.”

Earlier in the day, the Democratic governor said that it was increasingly unlikely that students would return to school buildings this school year

Colorado is relatively late to the game in deciding to shutter schools. At least 36 states have closed all schools, with a number of additional governors urging or recommending closures.

Polis’s order directs Education Commissioner Katy Anthes to issue guidance to support school systems with plans to help families and students access alternative learning, provide students with subsidized lunch and breakfast, and offer waivers for instructional time as appropriate.

The order says school districts and charter schools authorized by the state through the Charter School Institute must make every effort to provide alternative learning opportunities “while taking into account the needs of local communities.”

Districts have so far taken varying approaches to offering remote learning opportunities. Jeffco Public Schools, the state’s second-largest district, just finished its second day of remote learning. School officials in Denver and other districts have made schoolwork optional during this time off, while saying they are coming up with more concrete plans.

Denver students will begin remote learning on April 7, the day students were originally scheduled to return to school, Superintendent Susana Cordova said in a letter Wednesday night, a few hours after Polis’ announcement.

Remote learning will continue until at least April 17, Cordova said. To prepare, the district is buying additional computers and “options for internet connectivity.”

“I know that in my lifetime, I have never experienced anything like this,” Cordova wrote. “We will continue working hard to provide the best learning opportunities we can to all of our students as we adjust to the changing conditions and take the necessary steps to prioritize the health and wellbeing of our students and staff.”

State officials said they are already working on providing guidance for school districts to roll out remote learning plans. There are several challenges to doing so, including making sure all students have adequate devices and support at home. Other states have previously advised districts that it might not be the best approach.

Jeffco Public Schools released a statement Wednesday night saying it supported the governor’s decision and highlighting its extensive remote learning efforts.

“We know that this information brings both certainty and uncertainty for the weeks ahead,” the district said. “We’d ask that we allow each other a measure of grace, as we develop plans for what school looks like in the weeks ahead.”

For now, the district told families it will continue its remote learning through April 17, with time off next week for spring break.

The Douglas County school district also sent out a note telling families it would move to remote learning next week, as well as start a grab-and-go meal distribution plan.

Getting meals to students while schools are closed is a critical challenge for districts serving low-income families. Some districts began feeding students this week, and Chalkbeat developed this resource that rounds up school-based meal sites across the state.

Chalkbeat reporter Melanie Asmar contributed to this report.