UPDATE, March 18: Gov. Jared Polis ordered all Colorado schools to close at least until April 17.
Colorado’s largest teachers union is calling on all schools in the state to close as other businesses and activities grind to a halt in efforts to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.
Already more than 95% of the state’s K-12 students are out of school for at least the next two weeks, with the first wave of closures occurring last Thursday evening. Dozens of small rural districts across the state remain open. Some of those districts are on spring break this week and expect to make decisions soon on whether to resume classes.
But the head of the Colorado Education Association said Tuesday that Gov. Jared Polis should take action, rather than continue to leave the decision up to districts.
“Governor Polis has taken decisive steps to ensure the safety and health of Coloradans by making tough decisions to temporarily close down restaurants, bars, casinos, gyms, breweries, and coffeehouses,” CEA President Amie Baca-Oehlert said in a press release. “Yet there has been no order or recommendation to superintendents to close down Colorado’s public schools for public health and safety as we have seen happen in other states.
“Today we call on the governor and the superintendents of schools that have yet to close to put the health and safety of students and educators first in order to help stave off this massive public health crisis.”
When he declared a state of emergency last week, Polis said he would defer to local control on school closures unless there was a compelling reason to override it. Since then, state and local governments have announced increasing restrictions, from closing the state’s ski resorts to forcing all restaurants to end dine-in service. Many non-essential businesses are closed, as is the state legislature, and the federal Centers for Disease Control has recommended people avoid all gatherings larger than 10 people.
But he has not ordered the closure of all schools, leaving Colorado one of just a handful of states with any schools still open.
Conor Cahill, a spokesperson for Polis, said the governor continues to monitor the situation and “will determine whether a statewide closure is necessary prior to schools coming back from their announced extended spring break.”
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment issued guidance last week that calls for any school with a confirmed case of COVID-19 in a student or staff member to close for at least 72 hours so that the building could be cleaned and public health officials could investigate the degree of exposure. Schools with three or more cases would have to close for at least 14 days, and so would districts with three or more schools with confirmed cases.
On Tuesday, public health officials said that guidance still stands, but “is evolving over time.” Rachel Herlihy, state epidemiologist, said the state understands that school closures cause a lot of disruption.
“The situation is quite different across the state,” Herlihy said. She added that the level of community spread in rural areas might be different than in the mountains or in the metro area and is still being evaluated.
The state has also called on child care centers to remain open rather than follow the lead of their local school districts.
The large majority of schools that closed did so before they had any confirmed cases within the school community. However, public health officials have said repeatedly that they believe there is community transmission in Colorado and likely thousands of cases. As of Tuesday afternoon, there are at least 183 confirmed cases of COVID-19, but the demand for testing has far outstripped the state’s capacity.
Of the state’s 178 districts, all of those with more than 1,000 students are closed, either for spring break, with a decision about next week pending, or as part of efforts to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. The 40 charter schools authorized by the state Charter School Institute, which educate 18,000 students, are also closed.
Many smaller districts are also moving to close before the end of spring break.
Superintendent Trent Kerr of the 650-student Wiggins Re-50J district in northeast Colorado said the leadership team met this week and decided to switch to remote learning next week, after spring break. They were influenced, he said, by President Donald Trump’s call for a 15-day shutdown, a recommendation that was not directed specifically at schools but at public activity more broadly.
And in letter sent Monday, Superintendent Chris Selle of the 700-student Meeker district in northwest Colorado said schools there would close until the end of the month because local public health authorities believe coronavirus is present in the community, despite no confirmed cases, and “our community and school are intertwined.”
Chalkbeat reporter Yesenia Robles contributed to this report.