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Colorado schools’ winter break offers window to prepare for omicron

Governor Jared Polis is urging parents to vaccinate their children and schools to ramp up testing to significantly reduce disruptions in January from the highly transmissible omicron variant, but he has not indicated he will deviate from allowing school districts to set their own COVID policies.

To date, nearly 29% of Colorado children ages 5-11 have received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine, as well as more than 65% of kids ages 12-17, a rate that exceeds the national average. It puts Colorado on track to meet its goal of vaccinating half of young children by the end of January.

However, after the initial surge in interest, the pace of childhood vaccinations has slowed in recent weeks.

Starting in late December, the Colorado Department of Health will launch a $1 million ad campaign targeting parents. Radio and television sites, live streaming services, and social media platforms will promote vaccine safety and efficacy in children. The state is also sending out vaccine information to parents of young children and inviting parent groups to provide feedback on common questions and concerns, all with the goal of getting more vaccines into the arms of children.

“We believe that getting a higher vaccination rate for children 5 years of age and older is an essential part of making sure our schools stay safe the next semester as Colorado sees what other parts of the world and the country are already seeing with the spread of the alternative Omicron,” Polis said at a news conference on Tuesday.

Polis also encouraged school districts to take advantage of the state’s express testing program.

“Implementing testing can be a very effective way to welcome students back without welcoming COVID back to campus after the break,” Polis said. “We would like to work with districts to provide that ability to test children when they return to minimize any disruption to in-person education.”

The $173 million federally funded school testing program has faced a bumpy rollout, with fewer school districts participating than the state had hoped for, and some participating schools reporting problems with vendors and logistical challenges, as well as lower participation.

Families can also order free express tests directly from the state, and the Biden administration plans to create a similar system starting in January.

Schools in the Northeast that are still operating this week amid an increase in COVID cases linked to the omicron variant are reporting serious disruptions. More employees have come in contact with the disease, and more parents are keeping their children at home. Some school districts are delaying returns from winter break and are asking parents to test their children for COVID before sending them back to school.

After several weeks of continuous decline, Colorado is seeing an increase in COVID cases again, state epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy said, with the omicron variant already making up nearly half of the new cases. Denver and the state’s tourism-dependent mountain counties are seeing the biggest increases.

During a long fall that saw hundreds of school outbreaks, Colorado schools mostly kept students in classrooms, with some quarantine-related closures and staff shortages.

Colorado does not have a statewide mask mandate for schools or businesses, and Police have allowed school districts to set their own policies, usually in cooperation with local public health departments, although the state provides guidance. Many school districts adopted mask requirements to reduce the number of students in quarantine after a classmate’s test results came back positive, but in recent weeks some districts have backed away from these requirements, while others have never adopted mask requirements. Only a few areas require staff vaccination.

When asked if he is reconsidering this local approach in light of how quickly Omicron is spreading, Polis did not respond directly.

“We strongly support the steps our local school districts are working on with our county health departments,” he said.

Two districts that responded to Chalkpit’s inquiries — the Douglas County School of Education and Eagle County Schools — said they are monitoring the situation but not planning any policy changes or extended vacations. Eagle County schools will be under a local mask mandate until at least mid-January as public health officials there grapple with some of the highest case rates in the state, while a new Douglas County governor school board recently voted to make masks optional.

Herlihy said state health officials are looking at isolation and quarantine guidelines, including new federal recommendations allowing schools to allow students who test negative after exposure to remain in class, to see if changes are warranted.

“Testing strategies for survival and testing in schools is an important component of keeping schools open, and we look forward to expanding our testing capacity for schools,” Herlihy said.

Meanwhile, public health experts have described the winter break as an opportunity to increase vaccination rates among children and adults, including for school staff to get a booster dose. About half of eligible adults received a third dose of the COVID vaccine.

said Beth Carlton, associate professor of environmental and occupational health at the Colorado School of Public Health and a member of the state’s COVID-19 modeling team. “It allows staff and teachers to be prepared and make sure they are up to date and updated and that more parents can vaccinate their children.”

Officials are closely watching what is happening in other countries. Hurley and Carlton said it remains unclear how omicron disease causes people to become infected and whether different age groups may be affected differently from previous virus strains. Hurlihy said one study in South Africa found an increased risk of children being hospitalized even as adults were more protected, but it was too small to draw firm conclusions.

While there appear to be more advanced cases with omicron, Carleton said vaccines are still very effective in preventing serious diseases and reducing the possibility of transmitting the disease to others.

All of the mitigation measures that limited the spread in the earlier stages of the pandemic remain important, Carlton said. These include masks, improved ventilation, and regular testing.

“I was hoping a first grader would be able to go to school sometime this year without a mask, but now is not the time to ease mitigation measures,” she said.

Melanie Asmar, Chalkbeat’s chief correspondent, contributed to this report.


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