The decision to open Colorado's public schools in the fall will be made on a local school district level but with guidance issued by the state Department of Education and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, officials announced Monday.

Colorado commissioner of education Katy Anthes said the guidelines are based on the same three levels of protocols listed by the governor for dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic: Stay at Home, Safer at Home and Protect Your Neighbors.

The governor wants districts to rely on local decision-making as well as the presence of COVID-19 in their communities, Anthes said in a Monday news conference.

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"We want to maximize in-person learning in as safe and healthy a way as possible. That's the gold standard," she said. 

Dr. Brian Erly, chief medical officer for the state health department, said they've relied on advice from the American Association of Pediatricians and considered what happened in other countries. The virus doesn't seem to impact children as severely as other respiratory illnesses do, according to Dr. Sara Goza of the pediatrician's group. Children are infected less, suffer less dire symptoms and are less likely to transmit the virus to others.

Officials also looked at Sweden, which didn't close its schools and didn't implement strict social distancing guidelines. That country wound up with seven times the rate of infections than of neighboring Finland.

The Colorado guidelines announced Monday are based on "layering" protection, such as using face coverings and social distancing.

More distancing is better, but may not be practical in all situations. Add in adequate ventilation, and the potential for the disease spreading decreases. A restaurant in China showed that even people within six feet of an infected person were less likely to contract the virus with an efficient ventilation system.

Masks are part of the guidelines, but their use is based on age. Students 11 and older must wear them unless they are medically unable to use a mask. Children age 10 and younger should wear them, so long as they can put them on and off on their own. Masks shouldn't be worn during nap times for younger schoolchildren, according to the state guidance. Teachers and staff are also required to wear masks at all times unless medical reasons preclude doing so. 

The guidelines rely on what's known as cohorting: keeping schoolchildren in smaller groups that stay together throughout the day. Class size for those cohorts would depend on phase of the coronavirus in that community and students' age.

Schools should also stagger passing periods, drop off and pickup times, meals and recess periods, and open up all entrances, said Therese Pilonetti, institutions unit manager for the state health department. Officials are still working out how to handle an outbreak of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, at a school that could either close the entire school or require a cohort of students to stay home.

One issue that's still unresolved: How to handle staff and teachers who are at risk and require alternative work assignments. That could lead to a shortage of teachers in the fall who are willing to start in-person learning, officials said.

"Online and hybrid learning is likely to remain for a majority of districts," Pilonetti said.

"We really are trying to allow this guidance to be driven by local environment and what's happening at local level," Anthes added. "We know that different districts are facing different levels" of the virus.

Anthes noted the unprecedented challenges facing the start of the school year.

"We're trying to build guidance, layered with risk prevention, so that teachers, staff and students will feel safe, but we will not be able to eliminate all risk," she said. "We're hoping to start school safely as possible, even if in a limited capacity for in-person learning to keep our teachers safe."

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