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State agencies release guidance for Colorado schools to open in the fall

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Derek Draplin | The Center Square

(The Center Square) — Colorado state agencies released guidance for local health departments and school districts to open schools in the fall. 

The guidance, released Monday by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) and the Colorado Department of Education (CDE), gives school districts different recommendations based on the extent of COVID-19 outbreak in a locality. 

Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes said in a statement the guidance is “designed to help local health agencies and districts make appropriate decisions on health and safety precautions based on the incidence of COVID-19 in their community.”

“While our goal is to get students back into the classroom where they can be the most supported, we need to prioritize the health and safety of students, their families and staff,” she said. “With the virus still in our communities, we must continue to follow the guidance of health professionals.”

Citing “evidence that suggests the risk of COVID-19 transmission between younger children and from younger children to adults is low,” the agencies organized the recommendations based on three phases of COVID-19 outbreak – Stay at Home, Safer at Home, and Protect Our Neighbors phases – as determined by local public health agencies. It also recommends separate classroom guidance for different grade levels. 

For all school districts at all phases of COVID-19 outbreak levels, the guidance recommends 6-foot distance between students in most situations, organizing students into cohorts, home temperature testing and screening for teachers and students, and required face coverings for teachers and students while at school.

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"Cohorting is the most important strategy to keep schools open," the guidance says. Cohorting is when students are grouped within classrooms, which helps "to reduce contact with others." 

Schools districts in the Stay-at-Home phase should offer home learning except for students with "specific learning needs," under the guidance. Teachers would rotate classrooms each day and cohorts should be small. 

Schools districts in the Safer-at-Home phase can allow K-5 grades to return to normal class sizes without 6-foot social distancing and four teachers rotating through classrooms daily. Student cohort sizes for grades 6-12 would be left to districts that should encourage 6-foot social distancing, according to the guidance.

In the Protect Our Neighborhoods phase, the guidance allows grades 6-12 to  revert to normal class sizes while maintaining cohorts and social distancing.

Dr. Eric France, CDPHE’s chief medical officer, said that “having students return to the classroom won't be simple,” but the department “will continue to work with school districts across the state, so when ready, schools can have the necessary systems in place to protect our children and ensure that schools can mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”

Governor Jared Polis in March ordered schools statewide to close amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Colorado’s COVID-19 cases have seen an uptick in recent weeks, leading the governor to re-close bars and requiring masks be worn in public indoor spaces.