Polis: I'll Lower Hammer on Scofflaw Districts to Stop COVID School Shutdowns

Governor Jared Polis and Congressman Joe Neguse masked up during an August 10 visit to the Summer Outdoor Retailer Show at the Colorado Convention Center.
Governor Jared Polis and Congressman Joe Neguse masked up during an August 10 visit to the Summer Outdoor Retailer Show at the Colorado Convention Center.
During an August 12 press conference about the ongoing battle against COVID-19 in Colorado, Governor Jared Polis stressed that the state is merely recommending mask-wearing and other safety protocols for children and instructors during the 2021-2022 academic year, rather than mandating their use. However, he confirmed that if cases multiply so quickly in districts ignoring this advice that entire schools are put in the position of going remote — as opposed to random, short-term quarantines — the state will intervene.

Such a scenario "would rise to the level of emergency," Polis said, stressing that "we can't afford to lose another year of in-person education for our kids."

This doesn't necessarily mean that state officials would order such districts to impose the use of face coverings for all students and staffers, too. In the governor's words, "If you don't like mask-wearing, maybe you'll have to do universal testing surveillance" — rapid-testing of all employees and attendees at the beginning of every school day.

The media gathering began with Polis recapping the latest COVID-19 stats in major categories: 1,668 new positive cases today and 501 hospitalizations. Only a handful of those who've been admitted to medical facilities are kids; the hospitalization total includes just seven children age ten or younger, and just ten individuals between eleven and nineteen, he noted. Moreover, overall hospital capacity in Colorado is nowhere close to being overwhelmed.

Nonetheless, Polis strongly endorsed what he repeatedly referred to as "layered protections" at schools in order to ensure that in-person education can move forward as safely as possible. Among the approaches he cited were mask-wearing, social distancing and improved ventilation, but he focused on surveillance testing. The Denver Broncos tested everyone who went in and out of the team's facilities last year, he pointed out, and the team was able to avoid significant spread as a result. Currently, the state has access to enough rapid-test kits that daily testing is possible at educational facilities statewide, and thanks to federal funding, the items will be provided without charge to those that request them. "Now every school can have the same level of protection as the Denver Broncos," Polis said.

Universal surveillance testing can identify children and adults with COVID-19 who are asymptomatic, thereby preventing them from unwittingly spreading the virus to those who may get sick, Polis continued — and he also divulged that a plan is in the works to provide monetary incentives in the $5 to $25 range to individuals taking part, since surveillance testing might mean that "your kid has to go to school a little early," he said. But at the same time, Polis emphasized that the program is optional, just like the state's offer to provide medical-grade masks for students and teachers alike, duplicating a strategy deployed during the second semester of 2021.

Rather than castigating the likes of Mesa Valley School District 51, which announced last month that masks won't be required for anyone, Polis praised agencies, organizations and local public-health departments taking what he portrayed as a more science-based approach. But during the subsequent question-and-answer period, 9News's Chris Vanderveen asked Polis if a breach in hospital capacity was the only metric that would convince him to put tougher state requirements in place.

In response, Polis cited a second measure important to him: in-person education. "If we see districts are failing to stay in-person because kids aren't wearing masks, we will absolutely look at taking action," he allowed. "It is more important that kids are able to attend school in a safe way...and if a district is failing to implement things, we may have to go to them and say, 'It's not a good excuse to say we're going all-virtual.'"

At the same time, Polis acknowledged that quarantines are "to be expected this year. I think there will be many times, if there are two or three kids in a class [who test positive], that a class might have to go on quarantine. ... Parents should be flexible. There might be periods of time where, for a week or ten days, your child's class might have to go online. But that's done in the service of keeping schools open."

Complete shutdowns of an entire system are another matter entirely, Polis added, then promised: "We will not allow hangups around particular protection protocols to prevent kids from being able to go to school."
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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