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Colorado student info to be shared with health officials under order

Gov. Jared Polis, wearing a mask, stands in the center of the image. He’s talked to two seated students in red t-shirts, their backs to the camera.

Gov. Jared Polis talks to Rangeview High School students at a vaccination event in May.

Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include comments Gov. Jared Polis made Wednesday, three days after the executive order was signed, clarifying its purpose.

State health officials will have access to information about where individual students go to school and a better record of student vaccination status, under an executive order from Gov. Jared Polis.

The order, issued late Sunday, requires the Colorado Department of Education to provide the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment with “student information necessary for public health purposes of ongoing COVID-19 investigation and disease mitigation.” That includes information about which schools students attend as well as “sufficient information” to match students with names in the state’s vaccine database. 

The order also makes it easier to discipline state workers who don’t comply with vaccination requirements and ends the last remaining protections against eviction for non-payment of rent. 

“The pandemic remains an ongoing threat to our youth, especially those not yet eligible for the vaccine, and this data-sharing will enable public health authorities to promptly identify the school of attendance of a suspected or confirmed COVID-19 case and will assist with swift contact tracing and disease mitigation measures,” the order states, adding that such information-sharing is allowed under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, to protect student health and safety.

At a press conference Wednesday, Polis made explicit that the order is designed to identify school outbreaks in situations where schools don’t notify the state of positive cases or parents won’t identify their children’s school.

“If schools themselves are not made aware of it or don’t notify the state, we can make sure parents are aware when there are outbreaks at schools and schools can take adequate precautions to prevent further transmission,” he said.

“It’s really just to catch a few cases that might have been falling through the cracks.”

Children ages 6 to 11 continue to have the highest rates of COVID transmission in the state, according to public health officials. As of last week, there were 170 active school outbreaks affecting more than 2,000 students and more than 300 staff members. 

Colorado school districts vary widely in their COVID safety protocols. Some require masks, while others do not. Polis has declined to issue a statewide school mask mandate or to require teachers and school staff to be vaccinated. 

Meanwhile, some districts have said they won’t cooperate with contact tracing or quarantining students. 

“We continue to partner with local public health agencies that are leading contact tracing efforts to prevent and mitigate outbreaks at schools, and we share information with them while protecting privacy,” a health department spokesperson said in an unsigned email. “The data will help schools, districts, local public health agencies, and CDPHE better understand immunization rates in schools and better target interventions, as well as when to activate quarantines for typical classroom exposures.”

The spokesperson added that collecting data at the state level will remove the burden from school districts of collecting it themselves. 

Vaccinated students generally do not have to quarantine after exposure to COVID-19. 

The state’s email response did not answer a question about whether the state is considering a vaccine mandate and whether student vaccination data might inform that discussion. Polis has generally preferred incentives to mandates in the state’s vaccination efforts. 

California recently became the first state in the nation to require COVID vaccination for eligible students

“We are committed to keeping children in schools learning in person, and data collection and analysis are the cornerstones of effective epidemiology,” the health department email said. “The additional data will help provide decision-makers with the information they need to make informed, science-based decisions.”

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