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Colorado pediatricians, teachers ask state to encourage masks in school

Young boy wearing a mask sits at a desk.
Children younger than 12 aren’t required to wear masks in school under current Colorado rules.
Rachel Ellis / The Denver Post

Several Colorado medical groups and the state’s teachers unions have asked Gov. Jared Polis to encourage unvaccinated people — including children — to continue wearing masks in schools as part of a broader strategy to contain COVID.

While parts of Colorado have high vaccination rates among eligible adults and teens, the threat of COVID has not passed, the groups warned in a letter sent Monday. Children younger than 12, who cannot be vaccinated, are more vulnerable than before due to more contagious variants, the letter read.

“While vaccinations have helped drive a significant decrease in COVID-19 transmission throughout much of Colorado, we must acknowledge that over 800,000 Colorado children are not eligible for the vaccine,” the letter says, with the groups noting that vaccination rates remain low in many rural parts of the state.

“Non-immunized children are at a higher risk of becoming infected with each exposure and have a higher risk of severe disease if they become infected with COVID-19 now compared to 2020, because currently circulating variants are more contagious across all age groups and more likely to cause hospitalization and severe disease,” the letter continues.

To keep school environments relatively safe in the fall, the groups called on schools to continue the use of masks, health screenings, widespread testing, and quarantines in response to positive cases.

The letter was signed by the Colorado chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Colorado Medical Society, the Colorado Association for School-Based Health Care, and the state’s two teachers unions — the Colorado Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers’ Colorado chapter.

The same coalition has advocated throughout the pandemic for policymakers to prioritize controlling the spread of COVID to protect the viability of in-person school.

The letter is directed to Polis, as well as to Jill Hunsaker Ryan, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and Eric France, the health department’s chief medical officer.

Polis loosened Colorado’s mask requirements after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that unvaccinated people do not need to wear masks around each other. A public health order requiring most people in school and camp settings to wear masks expired June 1.

The current public health order requires only unvaccinated people who are 12 and older to wear a mask indoors. Younger children who are not yet eligible for vaccination are not required to wear a mask.

Previously, masks were required indoors for those 11 and older, but the age limit was changed to align with vaccine eligibility.

Districts, many of which previously required masks even for elementary students, have taken a variety of approaches in their summer programs. Denver Public Schools, for example, requires everyone to wear a mask inside, while it’s optional outside. In Jeffco Public Schools, masks are optional for anyone fully vaccinated or younger than 12.

Some parents have called for schools to do away with masks entirely so that children can have a more normal experience.

Rusha Lev, a Denver pediatrician and Jefferson County parent who has been active with the state American Academy of Pediatrics chapter, said many health professionals were caught off guard by the swiftness with which the state and local district officials left masking behind. In writing the letter, the health professionals hoped to start a discussion about a policy change that seemed to happen without much public debate.

“We don’t have good modeling about what happens when you put kids together in a room with no COVID protocols, and masks are a relatively minor, high-yield tactic to prevent virus spread,” she said.

As a parent, Lev said it’s confusing that her children’s five summer camps all have different mask requirements. And as a pediatrician, she works with families with parents or grandparents who still haven’t had a chance to get vaccinated.

The ultimate goal, Lev said, is for children to have as much opportunity for in-person education and socialization as possible while keeping them and their families safe.

“We recognize the pressing need to support both the mental and physical health of Colorado children by protecting them from infection with COVID-19 and minimizing disruptions to in-person learning,” the health and union leaders’ letter says.

“With a robust combination of vaccination, continued mask-wearing for those who are unvaccinated (including children not yet eligible for vaccination) and integrated testing approaches for those who are not vaccinated, Colorado can maintain a balance that supports children moving forward, while allowing for as normal and healthy a school year as possible.”

Read the full letter below.

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