Aug 18, 2021 - COVID

Colorado starts school year with mixed mask messages

Illustration of a school crossing sign wearing a mask.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

The rapid spread of COVID-19 is jeopardizing the return to in-person learning for thousands of students and teachers in Colorado who are eager to abandon virtual classes.

State of play: The more contagious Delta variant prompted Colorado public health authorities to recommend that school districts consider requiring students and staff to wear face coverings as case counts and hospitalizations rise.

  • Gov. Jared Polis has rebuffed calls for a statewide mask mandate, but says that he may shift his stance if schools are plagued with outbreaks and cannot remain open.

Why it matters: Across the nation, the coronavirus has already forced several counties to suspend school. Two days into the term, nearly 500 students in one Florida district were quarantined.

  • It remains unclear whether the Delta variant causes more serious illness in children, though more are being admitted to the hospital, writes Axios' Jacob Knutson.
Percentage of adults supporting mandatory masking in schools
Data: Axios/Ipsos Poll. Chart: Connor Rothschild/Axios

By the numbers: Most adults support mandatory masking in schools, according to the latest installment of the Axios/Ipsos Coronavirus polling index.

  • The poll found a partisan split, with just 44% of Republicans agreeing to such policies compared to 92% of Democrats.

Zoom in: The governor's decision to punt the responsibility to local districts means a messy patchwork of policies at the start of the school year that seemingly changes by the day.

  • Most Denver-area districts are requiring masks for at least a portion of schools but few are mandating vaccines, according to Chalkbeat, our education reporting partner.
  • Denver Public Schools, which returns next week, took the strictest stance, requiring all students, teachers and staff to wear masks and forcing all staff to get vaccinated.
  • On Tuesday, Tri-County Health voted to require students ages 2–11 in Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties to wear masks, but it's not clear how the school district will respond.

The big picture: The Food and Drug Administration has not yet approved coronavirus vaccines for children under age 12, making broad vaccine mandates for students impossible.

Even still, it probably wouldn't make much of a difference in Colorado.

  • The state ranks at the bottom in the nation when it comes to the required kindergarten vaccinations such as MMR.
  • It is one of 15 states that allows personal and medical exemptions, according to the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures.
States with religious and philosophical exemptions from school immunization requirements
Reproduced from NCSL; Map: Axios Visuals

What to watch: This year, a new law took effect that makes it harder for parents to get exemptions for their children, but it's not clear whether it will increase childhood vaccination rates.


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