COLORADO SPRINGS — Colorado pediatricians and educators have penned an open letter to Governor Jared Polis to encourage stronger mitigation measures next school year to ensure in-person instruction.
In the letter sent Monday, medical groups and teachers unions urged continued testing of COVID-19 and quarantines, enhanced ventilation and use of outdoor space, and mask usage for unvaccinated people (including children who are not yet eligible for vaccination).
For some families, the school year brought many challenges, especially when it came to masks.
"For my middle schooler, he is so annoyed that he has to remember a mask in the morning, and then for him in elementary school, I know that when I would meet him at his door and he would walk out, he would rip off his mask and say fresh air. Then he would say I'm having to have the teacher repeat stuff," said Trisha Gorman, Colorado Springs parent.
"If we weren't losing it, it was getting dirty from spaghetti during lunchtime. One day I had dropped him off, and he hadn't even stepped out of the car yet and the teacher was yelling at him to put his mask on," said Robin Baugh, Colorado Springs parent.
So when the state-wide mask mandate got life, both parents were looking forward to some normalcy. The groups behind the letter hope to bring them back as a safety precaution because of the COVID variants spreading.
"The understanding is that the Delta variant, the variant that came from India, in some places the dominant or will be very soon the dominant variant circulating. We don't know how this will affect children, but we do know that it is more infectious and probably causes more severe diseases," said Rusha Lev, American Academy of Pediatrics, Colorado Chapter.
According to the letter, vaccinations have helped drive a significant decrease in COVID-19 transmission throughout much of the state but there are 800,000 children who are not eligible for the vaccine.
“Non-immunized children are at a higher risk of becoming infected with each exposure and have a higher risk of severe disease if they become infected with COVID-19 now compared to 2020 because currently circulating variants are more contagious across all age groups and more likely to cause hospitalization and severe disease,” the letter says.
To help support in-person instruction in the fall, the groups want school districts to consider continuing with mitigation measures such as masks.
"We as a group were feeling that some of the already made announcements by the school districts about how this coming year will look regarding virus mitigation measures as well as some of us parents were confused around were what was the situation for kids needed to be addressed more fully. Potentially we could start a dialogue around what next year should look like," said Lev.
She says when the state-wide mask mandate went away, children were left out of the discussion.
"We believe dropping all mitigation efforts may lead to more disruption next year therefore kids missing out on in-person full-time learning," said Lev.
"When we have those things in place, it helps us to maintain in-person learning which is our top priority. We know that in-person learning is the best place for our students and our educators. The reality is that the majority of our educators are vaccinated or have received the vaccine, there is a large population of students that's not even eligible for a vaccine," said Amie Baca-Oehlert, the Colorado Education Association. "We want to ensure that districts continue to think about how are we going to implement those mitigation strategies to minimize out-of-school learning."
With the COVID variants spreading quickly, Lev says it's important that the community stays vigilant.
"While people are welcome to make their choices outside of school. Our argument is that inside of school, at least until we have a better sense of what we can do with vaccinating younger kids, where we are with variants, where we are with infections that expect to rise in the fall and to minimize disruptions, that we do a couple of things to try to keep it safer," said Lev.
While she understands parent frustrations over some of the recommendations, Lev says slowing the spread is critical and will ensure kids get the opportunity to learn in person during the fall.
"Unfortunately COVID is not yet done, but it's much better for a lot of reasons. The reasons are mostly because we are doing the right things as a community to make it go away. While I'm very sympathetic of things going back to normal, in my mind and the minds of my children and the vast majority of kids that I care for, a mask is a pretty simple and low annoyance thing to do," said Lev.
Some parents just wanting some normalcy after a chaotic school year.
"At this point it's frustrating. I don't know much about variants, but I do know that over 70 percent of Colorado is vaccinated. So at this point, if you haven't it's a choice. I'm not sure what they are worried about because the majority of adults are vaccinated why are we worried about kids getting it. They've shown very little symptoms, and it's just disrupting their lives at this point." said Baugh.
(Editorial Note: Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment data shows a 50.5% COVID-19 vaccination rate.)
"I am not going to let a fear of something that may or may not happen to my child dictate what they do on a daily basis. We take our precautions, we wash our hands, we do all of that and so far we've been fine," said Gorman.
The groups haven't received a response from their letter, but plan to continue efforts for stronger mitigation measures.