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Littwin: Jared Polis said basically all the right things about how schools can reopen safely. He still got everything wrong

Colorado’s governor agrees that masks in school are important in the age of the delta variant of COVID, but not important enough to mandate them

At a news conference Thursday, Jared Polis basically said all the right things about the importance of making sure we keep schools open this year for kids. He cited the benefits of wearing masks in schools, also of weekly rapid testing, which the government would make available, and, of course, the need for all those in schools who are eligible for vaccines — students 12 and older, teachers, staff — to get vaccinated.

And yet, somehow, Polis still managed to get the whole thing wrong. Or, if you’re being generous — and if I’m honest, I’m not feeling so generous myself — we could say he just didn’t get it right enough.

The problem for Polis — and for many Colorado school children — is that while he is big on the data and big on science, he is not so big on mandates and has usually ordered them only after being convinced he had no real choice. A group of 19 Colorado health care organizations sent Polis a letter asking him to require masks in schools. We know the American Academy of Pediatrics has been a leader in the cause. And the CDC, which can do no more than recommend masking, is recommending away.

Mike Littwin

Meanwhile, some parents in Colorado, and many others across the country, have come to near blows when arguing about school masking. Some state school districts, notably Denver, are mandating masks for all people entering schools, vaccinated or not. And yet most Colorado school districts are leaving the matter up to parents. This is where we are, not so many steps from chaos. And this, apparently, is where Polis is content, for now, to let us stay.

In his news conference, Polis outlined a many-pronged strategy — including vaccines for those eligible, masks, weekly testing — to keep kids in school this year, after the pandemic-rooted school disaster of last year. Now we’re facing another mounting threat, already long past mounting in large swaths of the country, of the ultra-contagious delta variant. 

But then Polis said, in effect, that it’s not up to him to make these choices, but rather up to individual school districts and individual parents. All he will do is offer options and encourage people to do the right thing.

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I was looking for a little more urgency. You fight such infections by getting as many people as possible vaccinated, made harder in a time where misinformation — thank you, Rand Paul — about vaccines is widely believed. Joe Biden is now requiring the military to get vaccinated. More hospitals are requiring staff. Denver is requiring city employees

And, yes, even though the vaccines aren’t quite as effective against the delta strain as against the earlier one and we’ve seen breakthrough cases, it’s also true that in some states as many as 99% of those dying from COVID are unvaccinated. 

And according to studies, including a major one out of Duke University, the starting point for safe-school environments — where many kids can’t get vaccinated, and many others, who are eligible, don’t get vaccinated — is wearing masks. Two Duke researchers, who looked at 100 school districts in North Carolina, determined that “proper masking is the most effective mitigation strategy to prevent secondary transmission in schools when COVID-19 is circulating and when vaccination is unavailable, or there is insufficient uptake.”

I saw an article about how the Littleton School District, which is not requiring masks, said it will “rely on parents to make the best decisions for their children.”

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Where this concept breaks down is that parents aren’t simply making the decision for their own children. They’re making decisions that affect everyone’s children. If a few kids come to school wearing masks and many don’t, the benefit basically disappears. This is not hard. It’s not rocket science. It’s medical science, and the medical scientists are nearly unanimously lined up on one side.

This is typical of the scientific consensus: “Colorado students need access to safe, uninterrupted learning this school year,” Dr. Edward Maynard, president of the Colorado chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said in a statement. “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.”

I’m sure Polis agrees with the statement, but he believes he can nudge, or bribe, kids to get vaccinated and also wear masks in school. Colorado is among the top quarter of states in vaccination rates, which is probably why the numbers of infections and hospitalizations, while growing, have not grown nearly as fast as they have in areas with low vaccination rates.

In Texas, where my older grandson is heading to the first grade in Austin, Gov. Greg Abbott has mandated that individual school districts, or individual schools, or any government entity cannot mandate masks or vaccinations. As I may have mentioned before, it’s the anti-anti-mandate, a particular piece of logic that doesn’t lend itself to easy deconstruction.

We’ve seen much the same in Florida, with its benighted governor, and now we’ve seen news that four educators in Florida’s Broward County have just died from COVID. In both states, the delta variant is out of control.

Texas is now in a state of rebellion. Many school districts across the state have decided to defy Abbott and require masks in school. The state’s four largest cities — Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio — are all in on the rebellion, even as Abbott is threatening to sue the offending counties, even as he’s desperately searching the country for more nurses to treat COVID patients. In Houston, two hospitals have had to set up tents.

The other day, my grandson met his new teacher. He also saw some of his school friends. I watched as kids, all masked, happily played with each other. The idea that you can’t read a child’s mood when he or she is wearing a mask — or that other kids can’t — is bizarre. Even in a mask, kids will laugh when they’re happy, mope when they’re not, and still spend way too much time planted in front of a screen.

Polis has said only two things could change his mind on a mask mandate. One would be if hospitals were in danger of being overrun. They’re not being overrun, at this point, in Colorado. Polis announced that, in the latest count, 501 people are hospitalized with COVID and that seven are under the age of 11 and that 10 are between 11 and 19.

The other would be if COVID outbreaks in schools — which Polis says he expects to happen — made in-person schooling too risky a proposition. 

I’m not surprised that Polis isn’t mandating masks. I’m not surprised, either, that he isn’t calling out parents who send their kids to school maskless as selfish and foolish, which they are. They’re also voters. I’m not surprised that even when he explains his multi-pronged approach to staying safe in school, he doesn’t give his explanation any weight. I mean, how hard would it be to require school districts to test kids regularly when the state, with federal money, is freely providing the tests? (By the way, the program is not even yet set up for large-scale testing and apparently won’t be until the middle of September.)

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What we have here is a wouldn’t-it-be-nice scenario. It would be nice if kids wore masks to school, if kids got tested just like (Polis noted) the Broncos, if vaccines for COVID, like so many other vaccines, were widespread among students. Colorado requires vaccinations for school children. Why not for those eligible for a COVID vaccine? 

In defending his unwillingness to mandate masks, much less vaccines, in schools, Polis rightly says one mitigating factor is not enough to stop the spread of the virus in schools, and that we need to do more. 

He’s right. Masks, as he said, are no “silver bullet.” Instead, schools do need a wide range of mitigations to combat the virus and keep kids safe. And yet, in Colorado, a wide range of school districts — in a time when politics often overrules science — have decided to do nothing, which means that Polis must do more.


Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.


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