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Three things for educators and parents to know about Colorado’s COVID-19 state of emergency

Gov. Jared Polis declared a state of emergency March 10, 2020, as Colorado works to contain the spread of the new coronavirus.
Gov. Jared Polis declared a state of emergency March 10, 2020, as Colorado works to contain the spread of the new coronavirus.
Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post

Update: The Colorado Education Association announced late Tuesday that its planned March 19 rally is canceled.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis expects to issue specific guidance for schools later this week as the likelihood of community transmission increases in the state, and labor department officials are preparing emergency rules that will allow child care workers and others in high-contact, low-paid jobs to get paid sick leave if they don’t already have it.

Polis stopped short of discouraging large public gatherings, but Colorado’s largest teachers union nonetheless announced later that day that it would cancel a large rally planned for March 19.

Polis made the announcement at a press conference Tuesday at which he declared a state of emergency in response to the novel coronavirus, a designation that allows the state to access additional resources and that gives state government more authority in a variety of matters.

“Declaring a state of emergency does not mean Colorado is not open for business or recreation or tourism,” Polis said. “We are. Nor should this declaration cause more anxiety. In fact, quite the opposite. We hope these actions provide reassurance that we are aware of the risk and taking every reasonable step to contain the spread of the virus and protect our most vulnerable.

“With proper containment we hope to avoid major disruptions to economic activity, avoid prolonged closure of schools and workplaces, and avoid prolonged limits on transit and movement that we are seeing in other nations.”

The governor said he was taking steps to increase the state’s testing capacity, including opening a drive-through testing facility at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Lowry office that people can use with a doctor’s note and offering testing in Colorado’s mountain communities, which have seen a number of cases, some linked to the tourism on which their economies depend. The criteria for who can be tested is here.

“The more people we test and the sooner we do it, the better chance we have of successful containment,” Polis said.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Colorado had 17 people presumed to be positive for COVID-19, including a Denver teenager. Polis said the public should expect this number to rise and that community transmission — cases that have no link to international travel or known exposure to an infected person — is likely to occur, if it hasn’t yet.

Here are three things for educators, parents, and anyone connected to schools to know:

More specific guidance is coming soon for Colorado schools.

In the next few days, Polis said state public health authorities will have more information for schools and nursing homes on how to keep their facilities safe. The federal Centers for Disease Control issued new guidance for schools on Tuesday, including suggestions that schools increase ventilation, consider changing or delaying gatherings that mix students from different classes and grades, holding classes outdoors or in open, well-ventilated spaces when possible, and improving health screening for cafeteria staff.

Around the country, more than 1,000 schools have closed or plan to close in response to cases of COVID-19, some for a short period for intensive cleaning and some for longer. The decision to close schools comes with significant trade-offs, as many schools are poorly set up for remote learning and many children depend on school for meals and don’t have a safe place to stay while their parents work. At the same time, research from past outbreaks has found that school closures are much more effective at controlling the spread of disease when they happen early on.

Children do not appear to get seriously ill from the new coronavirus, but they may spread it to others. Researchers are still trying to understand what role children play in transmission.

Polis said repeatedly that he hopes to avoid the disruption of prolonged school closures.

Early childhood teachers will have access to short-term paid sick leave.

Workers in professions like education, child care, hospitality, and food service who have flu-like symptoms will get paid sick leave while they await testing, which can take anywhere from 24 hours to several days. For those who test positive and don’t have paid sick leave, the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment is working to find ways to replace lost wages, such as access to unemployment benefits. That said, Polis encouraged private employers to offer paid sick leave as well.

A 2017 report on early childhood workers co-authored by Diana Schaack of the University of Colorado Denver found that approximately 53% of center-based staff receive paid sick days as a benefit, and approximately 22% of licensed family child care providers have paid sick days in their contracts with families.

Polis said he’s doing this both to encourage people to stay home when they don’t feel well and to increase public confidence in continuing to go about daily life. The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment is able to issue emergency rules on paid sick leave as part of the state’s expanded authority during a state of emergency. Those rules will be reviewed every 30 days.

Public gatherings are still allowed, at your own discretion.

Polis said that people who are 65 and older or who have underlying health conditions should avoid large public gatherings, but he twice declined to say that large public gatherings should be called off or avoided. The Colorado Education Association for weeks had been planning a major rally for education funding and teacher pay on March 19. Thirteen school districts and two charter networks have already announced they will not have school that day due to the number of absences.

Late Tuesday the union canceled the rally.

Chalkbeat reporter Ann Schimke contributed to this report.

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