Colorado schools could be allowed to have classes of 20 to 25 students at a time by the fall, twice the limit allowed under current public health rules, Gov. Jared Polis told an audience of charter school leaders.
In the video call Friday organized by the Colorado League of Charter Schools, the governor stressed the importance of isolating groups of students from each other to limit the size of outbreaks over the ability to maintain strict social distancing within those groups. He also gave a frank assessment of the likelihood of COVID outbreaks in schools.
“Anything can spread: lice, strep, or COVID,” he said. “The key thing is keeping those cohorts separate, so if three people in a class get it, it’s not 50 people in the school. There’s still the vector through siblings and everything else, but the point is you want to catch it when it’s early and isolated rather than schoolwide.”
Throughout the call, Polis repeatedly described cohorts or classes of 20 to 25 students as the likely norm. He advised school leaders to work on staggering recess, lunchtime, and passing periods to keep students separated. Larger class sizes would allow schools to bring students into school for more days of the week, a change that would be welcomed by some and raise health concerns for others.
Polis repeatedly cited the need for parents to work outside the home as a reason for schools to offer more in-person instruction. He also said the risk to children is low, though the risk to educators, parents, and grandparents is greater.
“You do whatever social distancing you can among the 20 or 25 people in the class,” he said. “They are going to be with one another. The main thing is you don’t want a group of 200 or 400 all together. So just figuring out how each cohort can be as isolated as possible, socially and academically, without sacrificing the program.”
Polis said schools should invest in medical-grade masks for educators so they feel safer at work but questioned the practicality of children wearing masks all day.
Polis made these comments just days after the Colorado Department of Education released initial guidelines for the fall that told schools to prepare for caps of 10 people in a room. That guidance was based on today’s public health rules and includes a note that the cap could increase. The guidance also recommends masks for students and staff.
The draft guidance was developed in coordination between the education department, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and the governor’s office. It’s expected to change depending on the public health situation and feedback from school districts and parents.
When Denver Public Schools released its own draft fall plans, it described classes of 10 to 16 students, with students divided into A and B groups and most coming to school just two days a week. Jeffco Public Schools has laid out scenarios that include students coming to school just one day a week and learning from home the rest of the time.
Many school districts are developing similar scenarios in order to comply with social distancing recommendations that limit the size of gatherings and suggest people stay 6 feet apart, though some rural districts have pressed for more flexibility and larger class sizes.
The 10-person limit is aimed at summer camps meeting indoors in June, Polis said, but “that’s not meant for schools,” despite appearing in the state education department’s guidance. Outdoor summer camps can have up to 25 children. Child care centers operate under a 10-student limit.
Polis acknowledged the public health picture, currently on a positive trend, could change. Initial data from Denmark and Finland did not find an increase in cases when children returned to school. But the most recent modeling released by state public health officials shows cases increasing in August, coinciding with a presumed return to school. It’s also not clear yet what impact Colorado could see from the reopening of many businesses and activities and days of protests over police violence that have drawn thousands to gatherings in Denver and cities large and small around the state.
Polis told charter school leaders they should be prepared to teach students whose parents keep them home along with those who come to school and to prepare for closures of several weeks when there is an outbreak.
“The key takeaway is there should be contingency planning,” he said.