El Paso County Public Health is recommending schools delay the first day of classes until at least Aug. 17 because of the rise in coronavirus cases in the Pikes Peak region.

The announcement, made in a late Wednesday news release sent by the county health department and Fountain-Fort Carson District 8, cites hospitalizations in the region and Gov. Jared Polis' mask mandate that took effect July 17. 

By delaying school reopenings, public health officials will have a chance to evaluate the effectiveness of the statewide order that masks be worn in indoor public places by everyone older than 10.

Local public health agencies can require school districts to submit reopening plans for approval, the governor's office said in a statement Thursday, but El Paso County Public Health has opted, instead, on a collaborative approach, a spokeswoman said.

“The consensus of regional superintendents is to support the county's recommendation to delay the start date of in-person schooling in El Paso County until at least Aug. 17, and to consider a staggered start between elementary and secondary schools," said Peter Hilts, chief education officer for District 49 and president of the Pikes Peak Area Superintendents’ Association.

"We will continue to monitor the situation and collaborate closely with them. We trust our community to respond appropriately and model the safe practices of social distancing, mask wearing and hand washing that are necessary for us to safely open schools for in-person learning.”

The recommendation won't affect most of the region's large school districts, which had planned to begin classes on Aug. 17 or later.

Calendars for Academy District 20, Colorado Springs District 11, Cheyenne Mountain District 12 and Manitou Springs District 14 showed start dates ranging from Aug. 17 to Aug 25.

On Thursday, Harrison District 2 updated its start date to Aug. 17 for most elementary and online learners, and Sept. 8 for most students in grades 6-12, contingent upon a successful start to school for elementary school students. 

Fountain-Fort Carson District 8 decided last week to delay the start of school from Aug. 10 to Aug. 17, a spokeswoman said Thursday. The district plans to release its return-to-school plan, which will offer parents a choice between online and in-person learning, on Thursday.

In a statement posted to District 49's Facebook page Thursday, communications director David Nancarrow said the board would consider the health department's request at its meeting Monday.

"Our published plan has been to welcome most D-49 kindergartners, sixth- and ninth-grade students to school Aug. 7, with a full return of all students on Aug. 10," he said in the statement. "Our teams of return-to-learn planners, along with the D-49 Board of Education, will solicit input and consider the implications of the county’s recommendation to determine next steps for our district."

District 20's board held a virtual meeting Thursday night at which the superintendent was expected to go over reopening plans and parents and teachers submitted comments that showed how contentious the prospect of resuming classes has become.

The district's plan released last week offer parents a choice of sending their children to school or continue remote learning. An update was expected Friday.

Commenters were split on which route to go, with some backing the plan to resume classes and accusing teachers who have expressed fears of returning to classrooms without safeguards approved by the health department of "whining."

Others, though, said the district should stick with online classes only until  the number of cases had dropped significantly for at least two weeks. 

A physician and D-20 parent said she was "not only concerned about the health of my own family, but the entire D-20 community" under the district's reopening plan.

"If we cannot follow social distancing guidelines as they currently stand, we should not be opening schools,” her comment read. 

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