COVID-19: Polis's Layered Sales Pitch for Reopening Schools

A clip of Governor Jared Polis rhapsodizing over the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine to arrive in Colorado was played for laughs on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon.
A clip of Governor Jared Polis rhapsodizing over the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine to arrive in Colorado was played for laughs on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon.
During a December 15 press conference updating Colorado residents on the state's fight against COVID-19, Governor Jared Polis argued forcefully that schools in metro areas and beyond should be open for in-person instruction after the first of the year. Other than an increased emphasis on testing and contact tracing, however, the protocols he suggested didn't seem terribly different from those that have been in place for months.

Still, he did highlight some new ways to help make schools safer. When speaking about "effective ventilation," for instance, Polis said that improving it can be "simple as a window being opened." He also referred on multiple occasions to best practices being "layered" — a buzzword apparently intended to make the approach seem new and fresh.

The same term pops up in three documents released in the hours after the press conference: the "Road Map to In-Person Learning" and separate letters to parents and teachers.

Prior to digging into education-related topics at today's confab, Polis touted the arrival in Colorado of the Pfizer vaccine's initial shipments and expressed hope that the Moderna version will soon be heading this way. In the meantime, he reminded folks that even those who've gotten an injection aren't instantly protected from the novel coronavirus; they won't be until ten days or so after receiving a second dose during early 2021. As a result, he said, everyone needs to continue following familiar safety measures: wearing masks in public, maintaining a physical distance from others, and resisting the temptation to gather with people outside one's own household.

Those who want to spend Christmas together need to start quarantining immediately in order to do so safely, he added, encouraging anyone unable to do so to get together virtually or perhaps put off an up-close-and-personal celebration until the summer. While Colorado didn't experience the kind of post-Thanksgiving viral surge that happened in many states and the country as a whole, Polis stressed that the risk of a worst-case scenario emerging in the wake of the impending holiday season remains very real.

Polis also conceded that the latest COVID-19 daily case count of 2,278 may not represent a true downward trend from recent weeks, when the state saw 5,000 daily infections or more, because testing numbers are down because of inclement weather and other factors. But there are signs that the numbers are leveling off, if not returning to the more manageable statistics recorded between July and September.

With that business behind him, Polis shifted gears with the following line: "Let's talk about schools." After stressing his deep personal commitment to academia, including his past membership on the state's Board of Education, he acknowledged that "what has been occurring this past semester simply hasn't worked for too many kids, teachers and parents, and we can and must do better." But he also contended that "ten months into this pandemic, we've learned a lot about the virus, about infection patterns, and we now know that schools are relatively low-risk environments."

Polis had created a back-to-school task force whose mission was to figure out a way for educational facilities to open for the winter and spring terms and stay that way through the end of the session. The resulting road map, he maintained, "uses data, science, transparency and identifies action steps in key areas to allow schools to reopen safely, prioritizing testing, contact tracing, continued mask-wearing, regular symptom screening, effective cohorting, effective social distancing" and the like.

That's about as detailed as Polis got, and his fellow panelists — Colorado Commissioner of Education Dr. Katy Anthes, as well as Heath Harmon and Rebecca Holmes, the working group's co-chairs — mostly stuck to generalities when they spoke, too.

But when answering questions, Polis offered a few more hints. "We are recommending in the report that schools are able to have on-site testing for anybody who is symptomatic," he said. "If little Johnny has a runny nose? Instant test. We have plenty of supplies to do that, and we encourage prioritization in community testing sites and at county health offices. It will be a priority to make sure everyone with symptoms gets tested," whether they're a student or staffer.

Polis also touted new guidance from federal health officials that individuals who test negative for COVID-19 after seven days can leave quarantine; such a test can't be conducted any sooner than day five. Polis also called for greater expansion of community testing sites around the state, to make getting such an analysis easier and faster.

The task force's plan isn't predicated on teachers getting the vaccine, Polis pointed out. Rather, it's about finding a way to keep in-person learning safe before most individuals get their shots. That includes people, like himself, who've already contracted and recovered from COVID-19; they'll keep their place in the vaccine line, since there's no definitive proof of how long antibodies from the disease offer protection against contracting it again.

Not that Polis believes schools will suddenly turn into COVID-free zones because of the new plan. When a reporter noted that educational institutions are the second-largest category for outbreaks, he countered that most of them are reporting a relatively small number of infections — in the single digits, not the dozens. "Preventing broad community transmission is really the goal," the governor added, "and the confidence I get, and school districts get, from this having been done successfully further highlights the value of these layered measures."

"Layered" again. Good branding!
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts