Public health policy will be dictated by local public health organizations for the 2021-22 school year

Photo Credit: CHSAA

Per the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment guidance released on July 21, 2021, local public health officials and local leaders will determine public health protocols for in-person learning and activity participation. Local public health officials and school districts have the autonomy to adopt stricter standards than the national and state recommendations based on the conditions in their area. 

Please direct all public health policy-related questions to your local public health officials. More information can be found via the Colorado Department of Health and Environment link: 

Colorado is following CDC’s recommendations for schools. This guide is designed to help schools operationalize and clarify CDC’s recommendations. 

Executive Summary: 

Colorado has made tremendous strides in decreasing transmission and deaths from COVID-19, including reaching a 70% vaccination rate among adults 18 and older statewide. In addition, Governor Polis ended the disaster emergency, signaling our transition as a state from crisis to recovery. Yet unvaccinated Coloradans remain vulnerable to new variants, especially the Delta variant, which is far more contagious than previous variants and has more severe health outcomes for younger people.  

Because many students have yet to be vaccinated and students under 12 are not yet eligible, we must continue to remain vigilant, take important mitigation steps that can reduce transmission of COVID-19, and address outbreaks in a safe and thoughtful manner. Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) will adopt and elaborate upon CDC school guidance, which was released on July 9, 2021. CDPHE is providing this practical guide for schools, parents, and students on how to operationalize CDC guidance in our education settings.  

This guide to operationalizing CDC guidance is aimed at disease control and minimizing the risk of exposure in education settings. But we know students’ wellness extends well beyond just disease control. Schools, educators, parents, and students must balance all of the needs of our students in order to achieve wellness and create a productive learning environment. With this in mind, the state has let all statewide school-based health orders and mandates expire and instead has adopted a guidance model designed to empower local public health and local leaders to protect their communities using the mitigation strategies most appropriate to local conditions. The guidance provides practical tools to assess the risks of COVID-19 and minimize those risks. The guidance does not constitute statewide requirements, but instead outlines evidence-based best practices for local governments and schools to implement together to manage the next stage of the pandemic.  

The state continues to recommend a layered approach of best practices to COVID-19 prevention. This outline of best practices describes in detail in the Back-to-School Roadmap, including ventilation, maximization of outdoor activities, mask-wearing, testing, spacing, cohorting, symptom screening, cleaning and disinfecting, and handwashing. It also includes information for local public health agencies, schools, and parents about community transmission and layered precautions.  

This guidance strongly recommends local leaders and school leaders take a layered approach to prevention as described above. Communities with higher rates of transmission and low vaccination rates should continue to take heightened COVID-19 precautions. Local public health still has the authority to enforce local public health orders, which may include quarantine requirements.  

The following criteria constitute higher risk:  

  • The community has a vaccination rate under 70% among individuals age12 and older.  
  • The school has a vaccination rate under70% among staff and students age 12 and older.   
  • The community’s transmission rate is above 35 cases per 100,000 people over a seven-day period. 

When schools and/or their communities have low vaccination rates and are experiencing high rates of community transmission (defined as 35 cases per 100,000 people over seven days), the local public health agency should work with schools and school districts to institute higher precautionary measures, such as:  

  • Masking.
  • Increased physical distancing.
  • Serial COVID-19 testing.
  • Contact tracing.
  • Targeted quarantining.
  • Limiting high risk activities.

 In addition to communities facing higher risk factors, certain student groups may be at higher risk of COVID-19 due to the nature of their activities. Riskier activities include indoor sports, contact sports, and other activities involving forced exhalation such as band or orchestra. In these higher risk settings, local public health and school districts should consider precautionary measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as masking, serial testing, contact tracing, targeted quarantining, vaccine outreach, and educational efforts. During the spring 2021 semester, outbreaks of COVID-19 often originated with these groups of students and then spread to the larger school community, disrupting learning.  

Similar to adults, students with underlying health conditions such as obesity, diabetes, asthma, down syndrome, and heart disease are more likely to experience severe health impacts, hospitalization, and death from COVID-19. Students and staff with these underlying health conditions are strongly advised to get vaccinated. If they cannot get vaccinated, they should continue practicing a layered approach to prevent COVID-19.  

Regardless of transmission and vaccination rates, all education settings should create the safest environment possible for their students through tried-and -true disease prevention measures. These include promoting hand washing, ensuring good ventilation, encouraging activities outside, social distancing, and asking sick students to stay home following CDPHE’s Return to Learn tool. In addition, CDC continues to recommend mask-wearing for all individuals age two and older in indoor settings who are not vaccinated. Masking is an especially critical strategy when a community is at higher risk of transmission. Schools should create an accepting environment for parents and students who choose to use masks even when they are not required.  

Not only is COVID-19 vaccination Colorado’s best defense against the pandemic, vaccination also prevents disruptions to in-person learning. Fully vaccinated staff and students never have to miss school due to quarantine, and fully vaccinated staff and students are not advised to wear masks unless they choose to. The COVID-19 vaccines have been highly successful at reducing transmission, infections, and deaths. As we look towards the fall, CDPHE looks forward to partnering with schools and districts to host vaccination clinics and increase our defense against this virus. Vaccines are essential for students and caretakers alike. Children’s risk of contracting COVID-19 is greatly reduced when they live in a household where all eligible individuals are fully vaccinated, even if the children are not yet eligible for vaccination. Any school or school district interested in hosting a vaccination clinic can complete the online Vaccination Event Request Form.  Throughout the school year, CDPHE will monitor disease transmission, severity, and vaccine effectiveness trends as well as community feedback. We will update our guidance and disease control strategies as the COVID-19 landscape changes with a continued focus on the essential nature of in-person learning. 

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