Polis Sees No Need For A Statewide Mask Mandate In Schools — At Least Not Yet

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
A CDPHE vaccine clinic at DSST Cole during a school registration day, Aug. 5, 2021.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis has no plans to issue a statewide mask mandate for students now returning to school across the state, but said a threat to either hospital capacity or the ability of schools to remain open in the fall could persuade him to consider taking additional action to curb the spread of COVID-19.

“We will not overwhelm our hospitals. We will take the steps necessary to avoid doing that,” he said, noting his other metric for schools is in-person education. “If we see that districts are failing to be able to stay in person, simply because kids aren't wearing masks, we will absolutely look at taking action.” 

But there are no established benchmarks for what might trigger additional action, which Polis also did not specify.

Speaking in a morning press conference, Polis said seven Colorado kids under the age of 10, and another 10 who are between ages 11 and 19, are now hospitalized with positive COVID-19 cases in Colorado. That’s among the 501 people hospitalized in the state, part of a national increase “among the unvaccinated,” he said, though Colorado remains in the lower one-third of states in incidence rate per 100,000 residents. 

The governor characterized those child cases as “just a small part of the hospitalizations,” but noted “we are not currently in jeopardy of overwhelming our hospital capacity,” the metric he’s repeatedly called the “north star” of his administration's pandemic response.

Polis acknowledged that some school districts will see cases in schools rise to the point where some may need for students to go into quarantine. 

“There might be periods of time where for 10 days or a week, your class might have to go online, if there is an outbreak in the class,” Polis said. “But that is done in the service of keeping the schools in person and making sure that they can remain in person throughout the year.” 

Polis’ comments come at yet another pandemic crossroads.

The delta variant has surged in Colorado and around the nation, just as students head back to school, with the fall/winter respiratory virus season looming.

There are signs that the incidence rate is stabilizing or even falling in parts of western Colorado, parts of south metro Denver, south central Colorado and in the San Luis Valley. But through August 11, all but 11 counties in the state remain classified as having high or very high transmission of the virus.

In the last few days, prominent health groups, as well as parents, have called on the Polis administration to mandate masks in schools, a step few districts in the state have already taken on their own.

On Tuesday, the Colorado Vaccine Equity Task Force called for vaccination and masking in all school facilities, from childcare through college. The group, which formed when the pandemic hit, cited “overwhelming evidence” masks decrease virus transmission.

The task force said it’s difficult to monitor and enforce mask policies in those who are not vaccinated. That includes everyone under 11, who are not yet eligible for their shots, and those older than that age, many who haven’t gotten them.

In a position statement, the group said wearing masks is safe for kids aged 2 years and above.

Colorado’s chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics sent a letter Monday to Polis, state health department executive director Jill Hunsaker Ryan, and the Colorado Association of Local Public Health Officials.

It too urged immediate enactment of universal masking for all Colorado schools and child care settings. The group said its guidance reflected the national AAP’s most recent guidance on safe, in-person learning, as well as CDC’s recommendations for fully vaccinated people.

“Colorado students need access to safe, uninterrupted learning this school year. The time has come for statewide action to make that happen,” said Dr. Ted Maynard, Colorado’s chapter president. “The current patchwork of school policies across the state will result in more COVID-19 cases, more transmission of the virus, more quarantines, and repeated school closures.”

Polis wants schools and disticts to take the lead on COVID protocols, and to take multi-pronged approaches.

But masks have become a third rail in political discourse. Opponents have criticized both masks and mandates as government overreach and an infringement of personal rights. Some have staged protests.

Polis made two things clear on Thursday: He wants local school and public health leaders to lead the charge in keeping schools safe and open to in-person learning, and he favors a “layered” approach.

“Surveillance, testing, ventilation, cohorting. There's a number of these,” Polis said. “It is possible if a district is failing to implement these, they may fail to stay in person.”

Polis also stressed vaccinations are critical.

“If you are eligible to get the vaccine, I encourage you not to wait another day, get the lifesaving, free vaccine as soon as you can,” he said.

“None of these is a silver bullet for stopping COVID, right?” said the governor. “Schools are finding out what package works best for their community to keep school safe and keep schools open.”

Polis talked about several steps the state and local districts are taking to try and reduce transmission, with a goal of keeping schools open even if the virus flares in a community.

“We will not allow hang-ups around particular prevention protocols to prevent kids from being in person in school, which is the best environment to learn. They've already lost half a year or three-quarters of a year, depending on where you are in our state of in-person,” he said. “We can't afford to lose more of that.”

Polis said the state might have to find a way to go to a struggling district with a package of options, “saying, 'You know what? It's not a good excuse just to say you're all virtual for the semester. You need to implement these safety measures.’ And maybe if you really don't like, in your community, mask-wearing, maybe that means you do universal surveillance testing and you do ventilation and cohorting.’”

The state is offering some programs to support schools, including mask delivery and free testing.

The state is also relaunching a mask delivery program for schools across the state. Adult and child-sized N95 masks will be available along with surgical masks for the start of the 2021-2022 school year. This program builds upon efforts to provide masks to schools last school year.

The state education department will reach out to every school in the state to provide information on how to enroll in the program, according to the governor’s office.

As part of his team’s efforts, Polis said the state is providing free, voluntary, rapid testing to all schools on a weekly basis for the entire 2021-22 school year. He said the program, which would be “completely optional” for districts and students, would start in early September.

The effort builds on the free testing that has been available since January. Last school year, 183 schools opted into the Binax-at-home program. Last spring the state health department (CDPHE) distributed bulk Binax tests to schools that had participated in the school mask program. It sent nearly a million tests to hundreds of schools in three monthly shipments, the governor’s office said in a press release. 

Polis said the testing program was similar to one the state’s pro football franchise has used.

“That's the way the Broncos organization in their bubble were able to operate in the football season by doing testing of everybody who went in,” he said. “We now have that level of testing for schools. It's really wonderful. Every school child in Colorado can have the same level of protection as a Denver Bronco.”

Polis said the state is exploring, with the federal government, providing an extra incentive for schools and students to participate. He said that could include a $5 to $25 incentive for a student to take a COVID-19 test.  

“We want to make sure that in addition to the epidemiological benefit, that there can be some kind of incentive around that,” he said, adding details will be rolled out later.

The state is still trying giveaways to get more people immunized. One program gives Coloradans who get the vaccine at participating sites a $100 Walmart gift card.  

According to the state, 73.14 percent of adult Coloradans are now immunized with one dose of the vaccine, and 65.42 percent of eligible Coloradans are fully vaccinated.

Editor's note: This story was edited Aug. 13 to add the number of counties now classified as having low or medium transmission rates of COVID-19.