Schools in most Colorado counties should generally reduce physical attendance through hybrid or remote learning under new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released Friday.
The new CDC criteria divides schools into four categories based on levels of COVID-19 in their counties: blue for low transmission; yellow, moderate transmission; orange, substantial transmission; and red, high transmission. Each level includes recommendations to schools, but makes no mandates.
The state has its own color-coded COVID dial with six levels generally based on levels of COVID-19 in counties: green for the least restrictive; blue, caution; yellow, concern; orange, high risk; red, severe risk; and purple, extreme risk, which would equate to a localized "stay at home order," as the state saw last spring. However, state guidance for schools suggests in-person learning for most levels and allows it at all levels. It, too, offers guidance, not mandates.
The federal recommendations suggest full in-person learning for schools in the CDC's blue and yellow categories, and hybrid/reduced physical attendance or virtual instruction for orange and red — with the exception of middle and high schools in red counties, which can remain open for in-person instruction if they're already open, implement strict COVID-prevention strategies and have "few cases."
The amount of disease spread associated with the CDC's most severe red level covers with most of Colorado's dial, overlapping all but its least-restrictive stage (green) and its second least-restrictive stage (blue), with which it overlaps slightly.
On Tuesday, 33 of 64 Colorado counties met the CDC's one-week cumulative incidence rate threshold of 100 cases or more per 100,000 residents per week, putting those counties in the federal red level. Those counties are classified as yellow, orange or red on the state's dial, but the vast majority are yellow, near the middle when it comes to severity.
Eleven Colorado counties met the CDC's orange, or "substantial transmission," threshold of 50 to 99 cases. All counties that qualify as orange — the federal agency's second most severe category — were classified as blue, the second least severe category, by state standards.
As of Feb. 1, 76% of Colorado districts were offering full in-person learning at the elementary level, and 64% at the secondary level, according to data from the state education department. Most Pikes Peak area school districts returned interested students to in-person or hybrid learning in January after a brief start to the semester in remote learning, under the recommendation of the county health department.
El Paso County Health spokeswoman Michelle Hewitt said Tuesday the agency was evaluating how the new federal guidance would affect the county, in cooperation with the state health department. Guidance would be updated "where appropriate" when the review is complete, she said, adding the county would continue to follow the state health department's recommendations.
A state representative on Tuesday did not directly address whether the state would amend its school guidance to more directly mirror the CDC's, saying in a statement only that its color-coded system was "designed for Colorado and the disease transmission trends we've seen when schools have opened," and that the state dial "empowers individual school districts to choose the level of opening that best meets their needs."
The state's guidance already "mirrors CDC recommendations," and the state will "make decisions on what best protects public health," according to the statement.
The divergence of the two systems illustrates the "disagreement among experts about how to define low versus high community spread" of COVID-19, with the CDC using a "much more stringent definition for medium and high spread" than the state, said Phoebe Lostroh, a Colorado College microbiology professor with a history of accurate El Paso County virus projections.
"The problem is we're getting to the point where the economic impact of this is getting almost as dire as the health impact," she said.
From a health perspective, Lostroh sees the CDC's guidelines as superior and designed to prioritize the health of people over the health of businesses. Of Colorado standards, "I think the opposite is true," she said.
Amie Baca-Oehlert, a high school counselor and the president of the Colorado Education Association, called the new federal guidelines "a good first step" toward ensuring schools can safely open, and remain open.
"This is something we've been asking for for months now," Baca-Oehlert said of the guidance, saying that educators, students and families need to understand "what's driving decisions and what the science is behind those decisions."
Keeping up with the state's COVID-19 dial and guidance has "been a challenge," she said. "I think that often times it has caused confusion. I do think the CDC guidance is very clear. Of course we do believe in contextualizing things for our state and for our local communities. But this guidance is based on a lot of input at the national level by experts, based on science."
The CEA hopes the new federal guidance will "spark some conversation" with the governor's office, the state health department, local public health agencies and school districts about what factors are driving decisions to open schools for in-person learning or go remote.
"For a while now, the dial hasn't really applied to schools," Baca-Oehlert said. "In all levels you could be in in-person learning. That's why we've been pushing for clarity and consistency in how those decisions are made. It's very confusing for families when you, from community to community, have very different approaches."