DENVER — The Colorado Joint Information Center (JIC) in a news conference Monday shared guidance for school districts with respect to reopening during the COVID-19 pandemic.
JIC said the guidance is based on what they know now, scientific evidence and expert consultations. School districts and local public health agencies play the central role on school guidance.
Katy Anthes, Colorado commissioner of education for Colorado Dept. of Education (CDE), acknowledged anxiety among students, parents and school staff as districts begin leading plans for the new school year this fall.
Part of the guidance, Anthes said, mimics the three phases of reopening Gov. Jared Polis put into place for the state: stay-at-home, safer-at-home and protect-our-neighbors. She said the goals of the guidance are:
- Maximize in-person learning in a safe, healthy way
- Minimize disruptions to education
- Ensure equity in education opportunity
- Encourage flexibility, adaption and innovation
- Allow for a regional approach
Dr. Brian Erly, medical epidemiologist with the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment (CDPHE), said kids 10 and under are less likely to spread COVID-19 and typically have less severe symptoms. He said right now, many kids are out playing in neighborhoods so, in some ways, schools provide a better, more controlled environment.
Erly also spoke about layers of protection for schools which include:
- Encouraging sick people to stay home
- Respond quickly to new cases
- Evolve with changing science
- Create environments that block disease transmission (using methods such as physical distancing, masks, barriers, cohorts)
- Screening for symptoms
- Looking at evolved science, such as the symptom of no taste or smell
He said districts also need to think beyond spacing and screening and at activities such as choir practice, ventilation and students' abilities to wear masks correctly.
Guidance from JIC asks districts to consider congestion in the building, specifically how can they relieve crowded hallways, lunch hours and common areas. Staggered arrival times and block periods were suggested.
The guidance says while 6 feet of distancing is preferred between people in schools, 3 feet is acceptable "in context of a comprehensive strategy" – meaning if other measures are in place.
Therese Pilonetti, institutions unit manager for CDPHE, added that while guidance isn't clear at this point as to if or when a school would shut down, they are working on an algorithm for when a school would completely close versus when a cohort would be instructed to stay home and work remotely.
When asked, Pilonetti said CDPHE couldn't recommend a specific number for cohorts, but said it depends on classroom size and other factors. She added the state's department of education has a toolkit for how to use cohorts and block schedules.
Anthes added that the goal is to allow for local control over openings of schools, saying the guidance gives information so districts can make good decisions – but those decisions might look quite different across the state.
The guidance comes days after Denver Public Schools (DPS) announced it would offer only remote learning for the first two weeks of school — until at least Sept. 8. District officials said they would reassess the situation at that time to determine if schools can safely reopen to in-person learning.
Many districts across the state had previously announced fall reopening models that included full in-person, hybrid or fully remote options for parents.
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