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First graders Zoey Schaller, left, and Daniella Madrid read together in Katlyn Smith's first grade classroom on Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019 at Aragon Elementary in Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado health and education officials on Monday issued guidance to school districts that allows for in-person learning in the fall with restrictions, for older students in particular, aimed at preventing outbreaks of the coronavirus. 

“We know that the safe opening of schools is a critically important topic that touches all of our lives, and we all really want to get our students back into schools safely where they are best supported and active learners,” said Katy Anthes, Colorado’s education commissioner.

Anthes acknowledged the heightened level of anxiety affecting the lives of teachers, staff members and families and said her department understands how worried educators in particular are about the coronavirus.

 “Of course we want to get back to school and do so as safely as possible, and that’s what this guidance helps us do,” Anthes said. “With our partners from local health agencies and districts, it provides a set of standards and best practices to know when and how we can get back to school safely based on the level of virus in each community.”

The state is zeroing in on a localized approach to reopening schools in the fall, with the pandemic impacting communities differently. 

“Not all school buildings, schools and communities are the same, so educators need multiple strategies that they can interchange and layer to decrease the risks,” Anthes said.

The guidance released on Monday expands on guidance the state released at the end of May. The Colorado Department of Education, in collaboration with district leaders and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, began developing a “toolkit” for the start of classes in the fall, with guidance focused on health and safety, continuity of learning and conditions for learning.

Under the latest guidance, all students 11 and older will be required to wear masks while those 10 and younger are urged to cover their faces. Districts are encouraged to “cohort” students to prevent mass spread of the disease if there is an outbreak. And schools are being told to ensure that common areas are frequently sanitized and that there is adequate ventilation. 

It will be up to individual school districts to decide whether to follow the guidance, but the recommendations are the clearest indication yet that learning won’t be fully remote in Colorado come fall as it was in the final months of last school year. 

“I know we’re going to have to be nimble,” Anthes said as she unveiled the guidance in a briefing with reporters. 

MORE: Read the state’s guidance.

The guidance calls for no limitations on class sizes for students in kindergarten through the eighth grade if current coronavirus conditions persist. Officials believe these students fall into an age group that is less likely to catch and spread the disease. 

For students in high school, state officials are recommending that districts limit class sizes to ensure that there is 6 feet of separation between pupils. 

The state is also recommending that schools limit the number of adults that enter classrooms to no more than four a day. 

Additional guidance focuses on transportation and protecting those whose health conditions may make them particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus. Suggestions related to transportation center on “more frequent and shorter trips,” and include keeping students distanced on buses and staggering their schedules. The state encourages districts to allow siblings to sit together on buses, but also stresses physical distancing and reduced capacity. Students belonging to the same classroom could also sit together if they’re riding on the same route, and masks are also important to consider while students ride to and from school.

For those with increased risk of severe illness from the coronavirus, schools must legally offer alternate work assignments. Students at higher risk must have opportunities to continue to engage with their school setting, whether that’s in person or remotely, said Therese Pilonetti, institutions unit manager at CDPHE.

The decision about how to start classes in the fall has been a complicated one for Colorado’s 178 districts, as well as private schools, as they weigh the struggles of distance education against the need to keep students and staff safe from the pandemic. Teachers have been especially wary, demanding that they be involved in decision-making. 

“I know that teachers are anxious,” Anthes said. “Ultimately, a lot of this comes down to individual decisions.”

Complicating matters is the fact that coronavirus cases and hospitalizations are on the rise in Colorado. Gov. Jared Polis has warned that the current trajectory is unsustainable and could lead to hospitals being overwhelmed in a matter of weeks.

The guidance encourages districts that want to use only remote learning to do so if it’s right for their community, and officials said it’s likely the coming school year will incorporate a mix of in-person and remote learning. 

Colorado health and education officials are emphatic about the need to keep groups of students together — called cohorting — saying the technique is one of the most promising ways to prevent a large coronavirus outbreak.

“It really is one of the most important tools we have to limit transmission as well as disruption in schools,” Pilonetti said.

Pilonetti said the state is not recommending “a hard and fast number” for cohorts, explaining that “it really is dependent on classroom size.” She recognizes that it’s a newer concept for schools, one that’s “kind of tough to wrap your brains around.” 

The guidance is tailored to the three different phases that Polis has outlined for the state’s response to the pandemic: “stay at home”, “safer at home” and “protect our neighbors.” 

Colorado remains in the safer-at-home phase, though communities can begin applying to fall under the more lenient protect-our-neighbors designation, which allows for large gatherings. The state’s guidance for schools under the protect-our-neighbors phase gives schools more leeway on class sizes.

The new guidance comes just days after Denver Public Schools, Colorado’s largest district, announced it would start the academic year with remote learning, veering from its previous plan of returning to in-person classes.

MORE: Denver Public Schools will not have in-person classes to start the fall semester because of coronavirus

DPS, which has about 93,000 students, reversed its decision to pursue in-person instruction for the health and safety of students, staff and the broader community. On Friday, when the district announced that it would conduct online learning in the fall, Superintendent Susana Cordova explained that based on the latest coronavirus modeling, it wouldn’t be safe or realistic to move forward with in-person classes in August.

Some districts, like Harrison School District 2 in Colorado Springs, still plan to open classrooms for in-person learning this fall, while others have committed to a hybrid model of in-person and online instruction.

Other districts have been waiting for additional health and safety guidance before firming up their fall plans.

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...