DENVER — As students across the state head back to school, many are hoping for a return to normalcy after a disruptive educational experience last year.
With the COVID pandemic continuing, decisions on how to handle health and safety have been left to individual districts. Some are requiring masks and social distancing or are encouraging vaccines. Others are allowing parents, staff and students to make the decision for themselves.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment have put out guidelines for how schools can keep themselves safe.
Gov. Jared Polis also spoke at length about returning to school safely during a press conference on Thursday.
“If we see districts are failing to stay in-person because kids aren't wearing masks, we will take action,” Polis said.
The governor went on to say that the approach may be broader than masks and include layered protections. He also spoke at length about a state strategy to get students regularly tested for COVID through incentives.
As the state keeps an eye on COVID case counts, several schools are tweeting out pictures showing large, maskless assemblies. In one photo from a Castle View High School assembly on Tuesday, a sea of students fills up the bleachers on three sides of the gymnasium. Dozens of other students are sitting on the ground. A lone school administrator stands in the center of the court.
In another photograph from Thunder Ridge High School, students are packed into bleachers along one wall with masked administrators smiling at the camera in the foreground.
Another photograph from Chaparral High School shows a similar scene. At all of the assemblies, there are a lot of students, very few masks and no social distancing.
It’s not exactly the start of the school year Dr. John Douglas from the Tri-County Health Department was hoping for.
“We have recommended that the endorsement of the Centers for Disease Control, that there ought to be universal masking in schools of everybody — all ages, too, regardless of your vaccination status. We think is a wise strategy,” Douglas said in an interview with Denver7 earlier this week.
So far, Douglas says he’s seen the rate of mask wearing in schools has been pretty low and that the voluntary recommendation isn’t creating a much compliance.
His recommendations come as all three counties Tri-County represents see an increasing rate of COVID among all age groups.
“They're going up at least as fast or maybe even faster in school-age kids and that's before schools have really kicked into full gear,” Douglas said.
Meanwhile, Amie Baca-Oehlert from the Colorado Education Association worries large assemblies at any school, regardless of the district, could contribute to COVID cases in classrooms.
“For us at the CEA, our biggest priority is to prioritize in-person learning, consistent in-person learning, and minimize those disruptions,” Baca-Oehlert said. “We’ve seen other places across the country where they have already had to do mass quarantines and some even move into remote learning this early in the school year, and we’re hoping to avoid that by not doing things like large gathering.”
The CEA is strongly recommending districts follow CDC guidelines. However, the teacher’s union does not represent Douglas County educators. The union that does, the Douglas County Federation, declined to comment.
The Douglas County School District sent Denver7 a statement about the assemblies, writing, “We believe that what our students need most right now is a return to school with as much consistency and normalcy as possible within a safe environment. And that is a big reason we have developed layered COVID protocols for the coming school year, in collaboration and in accordance with the Tri-County Health Department and their recommendations. Schools will continue to implement physical distancing where possible, and make available additional physical space for those who want/need more distance while learning.”
The statement went on to say that the assemblies are not mandatory and that parents can contact their child’s school to request an alternate activity during the event.
So far, Castle View High School has one reported case of COVID from this school year listed on the district case tracker, however a district spokesperson says that case involved someone who had not yet been at the school in person this year and is currently in isolation.
Douglas County Schools does require masks for employees who are not vaccinated. However, the vaccine reporting process is voluntary and unvaccinated staff are on the honor system for wearing masks.
Baca-Oehlert wants to see protocols that apply for everyone across the board so that students, parents and staff aren’t put in an uncomfortable situation.
“We are concerned about kind of the position that our students and educators are in having to make these difficult choices around do I put my health and safety first or do I worry about what my friends or colleagues may think about me if I’m doing something that no one else is doing,” Baca-Oehlert said.
Everyone Denver7 spoke with said they want the best for students. For now, it’s up to individual districts to determine how to accomplish that.