DENVER – Local public health agencies and local school districts will have the ultimate say in when and how public school will resume this fall and will have to utilized layered COVID-19 mitigation strategies to try to bring as many students and teachers back to in-person learning as is feasible, according to guidance released Monday by Colorado education and public health officials.
The much-awaited guidance will give the district superintendents and school boards, as well as local public health officials, framework from which to work on their own plans as the school year nears. Several metro-area districts have already released draft or finalized plans for resuming school but have said they are subject to change as the school year nears.
Under the guidance issued Monday, there will be baselines that all schools and districts need to meet across the state. But the guidance also sets up a framework for local public health agencies to work within certain phases the state has used for COVID-19 responses and apply them to schools as well: a stay-at-home, a safer-at-home, and a protect-our-neighbors phase.
But districts will develop and approve their fall plans unless local public health agencies are required to approve them. The guidance was developed by the state with input from educators and districts, among several others.
For all public schools and especially middle and high schools, according to the guidance, 6 feet of physical distancing between people is preferred, though at least 3 feet is recommended – especially among teachers and older staff. Schools will also have to create a seating chart for students to sit in assigned seats as much as possible.
Schools should also consider staggering arrival and pickup times to reduce crowding, per the guidance.
The guidance also strongly encourages cohorting among students that varies by grade level and the phase under which a local area, and schools or districts, is operating – especially if students cannot keep proper distancing levels. Officials said in a call with journalists about the guidance that it was the best tool schools and districts have to reduce widespread outbreaks should any small outbreaks occur, as students will be kept in smaller groups and isolated.
All schools will have to refer symptomatic employees, teachers and students for evaluation and testing and report the cases to local public health agencies. They will also have to dedicate a room to isolate anyone with symptoms until they can return home or go see a health care provider. Typical disinfecting and cleanliness strategies will also be required.
All school employees will have to wear face coverings unless they cannot do so for medical reasons, per the guidance, with few limited exemptions. Students over the age of 10 will be required to wear face coverings over their nose and mouth except during outdoor recess and while exercising in all instances when proper distancing can’t be maintained, except for if they have a health or education reason not to.
Students aged 10 and younger will be encouraged to wear face coverings except during recess and when exercising.
But masks will not be required for any students during nap times or for younger children when they cannot be observed. The face coverings should also be easily removable by students without them needing assistance.
Employees and students should both undergo health screenings, including home temperature and symptom screening or self-screenings, will be asked to stay home if they or a family member has symptoms of or has been diagnosed with COVID-19, and will undergo screening at schools if they cannot do so at home. Schools are also advised to consider conducting daily temperature screenings for students and employees.
Under the guidance, schools and districts will also have to comply with requirements to provide alternative work assignments for older staffers and those who are more at-risk from the disease and should consider developing staff leave, online learning options and alternative work duty policies to help employees work from home.
Districts and schools should facilitate alternative learning arrangements “when appropriate” for people who are at higher risk from the coronavirus under the guidance.
They are also advised to limit bus capacities, having cohorts sit together, make bus trips more frequent and shorter and to require face coverings when physical distancing is not possible.
Online and hybrid curriculums are likely to remain a component of education for more at-risk students, officials said.
But the rules become more stringent if an area reverts to a “stay-at-home” phase – decisions that would be made if COVID-19 incidence rates are high in the respective community. Colorado, as of Monday, was in the “safer-at-home” phase.
Under the stay-at-home phase, remote learning would be advised except for “a limited number of students requiring in-person education due to specific learning needs.” But those students would have to stay with cohorts and only see a certain number of adults or teachers each day.
Under the safer-at-home phase, remote instruction could continue “if best for your community.” K-5 classes could return to in-person classes with normal class sizes. But for middle and high schools, the guidance recommends that local schools should determine the appropriate gathering size.
Cohorting guidance also comes with the safer-at-home phase, which says that students should remain with the same cohort of students throughout the week, have staggered recess periods and movement, and have staffers alternate between “partner cohorts.”
Under the “protect our neighbors” phase, which requires state approval, normal class sizes could occur everywhere, with increased cohorting for middle and high school students. Other spacing tactics would be utilized under that phase, according to the guidance.
CDPHE Medical Epidemiologist Dr. Brian Erly said the guidance was developed with input from the science and education communities, along with data from other countries and states. He said cohorting was among the top strategies the officials had come across.
“We wouldn’t be recommending it so strongly if it wasn’t so important,” Erly said.
Colorado Commissioner of Education Katy Anthes said the broad guidance allows for districts and schools to look at minimum standards and to then follow a local approach since virus prevalence differs greatly in different parts of the state. She said that state officials would be working with local officials to evaluate the ever-changing situation.
The officials stressed that a layering of all strategies – including mask-wearing, physical distancing, and cohorting among them – would be the key to keeping cases down, preventing schoolwide outbreaks and getting kids and teachers safely back into classrooms where they can best learn and teach.
The Jefferson County Educators Association is among teacher groups voicing concerns about teachers returning to in-person teaching. The union asked Monday for the district to reconsider opening schools fully to in-person instruction on Aug. 24 and instead consider remote options or a postponement. Denver Public Schools officials on Friday afternoon announced that the district will start the school year remotely, on Aug. 24, with no exact date to return to campuses.
Anthes said Monday that officials did have concerns about teacher shortages or a lack of teachers willing to return to in-person teaching.
“We won’t be able to eliminate all risk and we’re being honest about that. I know teachers are anxious about that, and that is a concern,” she said. “We hope that with engagement and layered risk protections that we can have a safe environment starting back and that using this guidance will add to that. … Districts are doing the best they can to provide for alternative work arrangements, but there will be a limit.”
Anthes and the other officials stressed that they would be keeping a close watch on how the virus numbers change in coming weeks and how local districts and schools work to start their years.
“We know this is complicated, but I know we can do it. I trust our local professionals,” Anthes said in a news conference announcing the guidance. “…We’re going to have to be nimble in the days ahead and make sure those contingency plans are all available.”