State health officials Tuesday night "strongly" recommended school districts use layers of infection control efforts such as masking and distancing, but they stopped short of mandating any measure, instead leaving those decisions to local policymakers.

In a document released by the state Department of Public Health and Environment, officials urged using a mix of masking, distancing, hand washing, improved ventilation and other prevention measures. Those recommendations were especially aimed at areas with high disease spread, and the officials wrote that areas or individual schools with vaccination rates below 70% "should continue to use heightened COVID-19 protections."

"When schools and/or their communities have low vaccination rates and are experiencing high rates of community transmission ... the local public health agency should work with schools and school districts to institute higher precautionary measures," the officials wrote in the guidance. Those measures include "masking, increased physical distancing, COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, targeted quarantining, (and) limiting high risk activities."

The state's recommendations follow guidance released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which also supports -- but doesn't require -- masking in elementary school students who aren't yet able to be vaccinated. But they clash with more stringent guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which earlier this week recommended masking for all students, vaccinated or otherwise, over the age of 2.

Two Colorado health experts said masking was the safe, "logical" approach, but both acknowledged the "politicization of masking."

"Given the large numbers of unvaccinated school children (including all kids under 12 years), I believe that a universal mask-wearing policy in schools will be a very beneficial and low-cost strategy to reduce transmission," Glen Mays, of the Colorado School of Public Health, said in an email Wednesday. "I anticipate that many school districts will need to consider such a policy this fall, despite the fact that mask requirements remain unpopular among some groups."

Masks were required when school was in session for in-person learning last year. But the state officially removed that requirement in early July while also relaxing outbreak requirements that had prompted disruptions to in-person learning. The same day the order ending the school-masking requirement was released, five members of the state Board of Education released a letter urging Gov. Jared Polis to use "little to no state-level regulation of in-person learning" for the coming academic year.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Polis embraced that position.

"It is of course up to individuals and families and schools exactly how they integrate mask wearing, testing, into promoting a safe school environment," he said. "In different areas of the state, there's a different social license and a different balance, and we really respect that local ability to implement the guidance that we've issued at the state level, echoing the best science from the national level."

Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, similarly placed the focus on local leaders, but the association would like to see all of the CDC's guidance followed. In a statement, she urged local officials to "seek the counsel of educators; the professionals who are with students all day, ever day." 

Mays said requiring masking was a "logical and feasible protection. And Jon Samet, the dean of the public health school, called the pandemic's picture in August "worrisome" with school returning and the benefits of summer -- no school and warm weather -- ending.

"School re-opening will bring more mixing," he said, adding that "requiring masks per the (American Academy of Pediatrics) is a 'no-regrets' strategy. Probably helps some and is without harm — setting aside the politicization of masks."

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