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New wave of confirmed virus cases tied to Colorado retail locations

DENVER (AP) — As nursing home infections decrease, Colorado health officials say more people are contracting COVID-19 in retail locations, such as stores and restaurants.

Outbreaks in nursing homes, assisted living facilities and group homes contributed to a high death toll in March and April, but the state Department of Public Health and Environment reported that there was only one new outbreak in such a facility in the last week of June, The Denver Post reported.

An outbreak is declared when there are two or more confirmed COVID-19 cases in a facility within a 14-day period, officials said. Multiple retailers have experienced outbreaks, including six King Soopers stores, a number of fast food outlets such as McDonald’s and Chick-Fil-A, and big box stores such as Walmart, Costco and Home Depot.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. But for some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

State health department spokesman Ian Dickson argued that the number of outbreaks could reflect a combination of workplaces reopening and increased testing.

Colorado is currently experiencing a two-week increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases, officials said. Democratic Gov. Jared Polis ordered bars and nightclubs to close again this week following the increase.

Six people died from complications caused by COVID-19 since June 24, the state’s smallest increase in deaths since reports began in April, health officials said. Colorado has had 956 virus-related deaths.

Body of male child recovered in Eagle River east of Dotsero

The body of a male child was recovered from the Eagle River east of Dotsero around 2:30 p.m. Friday.

The body was discovered by a private group of people on the river, according to an Eagle County official.

No further details were forthcoming. The Eagle County Coroner’s Office is handling the investigation.

This is a developing story that will be updated.

Forest Service orders Colorado train in Durango to stop fire mitigation

DURANGO (AP) — The U.S. Forest Service shut down an extensive fire mitigation project after raising concerns about the number of trees being cut down and sold to a logging company in southwestern Colorado.

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad completed eight miles (12 kilometers) of the tree-cutting project before the Forest Service sent the railroad a cease-and-desist order May 27, The Durango Herald reported Thursday.

“Members of the public and Forest Service resource specialists have raised a number of concerns about … clearing activities currently being conducted along the railroad right-of-way,” San Juan National Forest Supervisor Kara Chadwick said in the order.

The project focused on the 100-foot (30-meter) right of way on each side of the railroad tracks from the Cascade station to Silverton, said John Harper, general manager of American Heritage Railways, which owns the D&SNG. It was intended to help prevent wildfire and derailment.

Downed trees were sold to the Dolores-based IronWood Mill, which was also contracted to cut down the trees, Harper said.

“There’s been some misrepresentation because people consider it logging,” Harper said. “But any salvageable timber was taken out of the canyon so it could be put to good use rather than be disposed of or wasted.”

The D&SNG did not inform the Forest Service of its project because the railroad isn’t required to notify the agency of work in its right of way, he said.

But Chadwick said since the track crosses and is adjacent to National Forest land, federal law requires the railroad to inform the agency of any work that may go beyond routine maintenance.

“The regulation requires you inform the Forest Service in order to obtain a determination that the work is routine … and is therefore exempt from permit requirements,” Chadwick said.

Forest Service spokeswoman Esther Godson said Thursday the situation remains under investigation and the agency has no further comment.

Announcement of found Forrest Fenn treasure doesn’t stop speculation

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Forrest Fenn’s hidden treasure may have been discovered in early June, but that hasn’t stopped fortune hunters from speculating about where it was hidden.

When Fenn, a former art dealer from Santa Fe, New Mexico, announced the discovery he did not say who found his cache worth more than $1 million, or where they were from, other than “back East.” Fenn said the discovery was confirmed by a photo the man sent him.

Billings therapist David McFarland, in a June 10 Billings Gazette story, claimed he solved the riddle just before Fenn’s treasure was discovered. The location, he believed, was near Woodbine Falls along the Stillwater River in Montana. After listing his solutions to the Fenn riddle, which is meant to guide seekers to the treasure, McFarland said, “I dare anybody to figure out a better solve.”

A few folks took him up on his dare, The Billings Gazette reported.

Utah

Alpine, Utah, grandmother Janet Kaplar believes she found the hole where the treasure had been hidden — a boggy area in northern Yellowstone National Park between Swan Lake and Mammoth Hot Springs, Wyoming. Using clues she found using Google Earth, an online mapping program, she arrived at the impression the second day that Yellowstone opened to travelers this spring. The park was closed for seven weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re old-timers to the area, but never went into the backcountry,” she said, instead often visiting in the winter to snowmobile.

Despite locating what she thinks is the indent where the treasure was buried, Kaplar remains skeptical. Maybe Fenn called off the search because of “all the craziness,” she said. Five people have died searching for the booty, and many more have required rescue after becoming lost or stranded in the Rocky Mountains.

Although some members of her family questioned her search, Kaplar said her grandchildren loved the exploration.

“I really hope that’s the case,” that someone found the treasure, she said.

California

Attorney Boyd Hill is certain he came close to finding the treasure last year on a foray into the Gardiner Basin, just north of Yellowstone National Park. Hill said the clues Fenn gave when viewed via Google Earth are like a pictograph, symbols painted by prehistoric humans to tell stories or recount visions.

Hill said Fenn’s riddle points to stories from Norse mythology. Using those clues, he tracked the treasure to an old mining area north of Gardiner in a drainage on the west side of the Yellowstone River.

“It’s a fascinating solve,” he said. “One that had a couple of wrinkles.”

One of the wrinkles was the presence of so many “wild critters” on the landscape, including wolves, cougars and bears.

Hill thinks he may have even met the person who found the treasure while exploring the area last year.

The story of the Fenn fortune appealed to Hill because his grandfather had given him books on treasure hunting he read as a child.

“I kind of felt like my deceased grandfather was urging me,” he said.

Two years after first reading about the treasure, during a trip to Yellowstone, he began his search and became more intrigued.

“I’ve seen a lot of these solves, and they are crazy,” Hill said.

Colorado

Retired Greeley dairy worker Bill Dyrud got sucked into the Fenn treasure hunt after watching a YouTube video on the subject while “lazying in bed one night.”

Lining up Santa Fe — Fenn’s hometown — with the North Star led Dyrud to the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming and its Medicine Wheel, an ancient ceremonial stone circle used by Native Americans for centuries. To Dyrud, the wheel marked the spot where Fenn’s poem said warm waters halt, the warm waters being tears shed by those coming to the Medicine Wheel for healing.

“He said it would be simple,” Dyrud said. “That’s what I came up with.”

Telling others was a way for him to get the solve off his chest.

Boulder resident Paul Klasky thinks the treasure was hidden near him, in the small town of Cascade, Colorado. The community is home to North Pole Santa’s Workshop, a themed amusement park.

In a letter to The Billings Gazette, Klasky wrote that Fenn’s poem “seemed to have the cadence of ‘The Night Before Christmas.’” Consequently, his reading of the clues are linked to Santa, including the passage that reads: “The answers I already know,” which he said refers to Santa knowing who is naughty and nice.

Cascade, Colorado, is about an hour’s drive from Santa Fe, Klasky noted.

Speculation

So even with the reported solving of Fenn’s riddle and supposed recovery of the hidden riches, the mystery of it all continues to gnaw at treasure hunters. The Billings Gazette received emails from other seekers, including residents of Ohio and New Jersey who did not return calls seeking more information.

Was there ever a treasure? Did Fenn recover it himself because some hunters were getting close? If not, why is the person who found the treasure remaining silent? Are they afraid of being mobbed by the media or people seeking to swindle them out of their hard-found fortune?

We may never know. One Billings resident, who asked to remain anonymous, said he helped a man from Ohio find the treasure. It was buried in southwest Wyoming, he said.

Red Lodge resident Rex Buehring said his wife, Kasey, had hung Fenn’s poem on her mirror to analyze the clues. They believe the treasure had been hidden in the West Yellowstone region near the Madison River. Fenn never spent any time on the Stillwater River, Buehring said, but did spend time in West Yellowstone.

When news of the treasure being found spread, Buehring and his wife were disheartened. They had planned to return to the West Yellowstone area this spring and resume their search.

“Gosh darn, we had four or five people call us,” he said. “It was a letdown. I’m going to go out now and look for shed moose horns.”

He also searches for golf balls near his home next to the small town’s course. In his best year he counted more than 1,600 balls. One day he found 79. Given the price of golf balls, that’s a valuable treasure.

New Colorado legislation aims to protect rights of mobile home park residents

DILLON — Gov. Jared Polis last week signed two bills that aim to expand the rights of mobile home park residents.

Summit County’s state Rep. Julie McCluskie was a prime sponsor on the Mobile Home Park Act Updates bill and a co-sponsor on the Mobile Home Park Residents Opportunity to Purchase bill. She said the legislation built off an effort last year to give local governments enforcement power over the parks.

“Last year’s bill was the first of its kind and rather dramatic just in that it had reestablished the Mobile Home Park Owners Act that had been passed back in the ’80s,” McCluskie said. “Since passing that, over the course of the last year, a number of stakeholders came together to continue talking about the needs of those folks who own mobile homes but don’t necessarily own the land that they’re on in the mobile home park.”

McCluskie said one of the new bills includes fair water billing practices to address a letter she received from Leadville that said mobile home owners had to ration their water, including limiting how many times per day they could flush their toilets. She said the bill is a step forward in making sure mobile home owner’s rights are protected and that they’re able to exercise those rights without fear of retaliation — such as eviction.

McCluskie said she has worked to make sure evictions don’t occur due to minor offenses and that the bill includes language that clarifies what a mobile home owner can expect and what their rights are.

“… It is such a unique relationship for these mobile home owners who don’t own the land their mobile home sits on,”McCluskie said. “… I do think that these bills, last year’s and this year’s, were kind of the first of their kind to address the rights of mobile home owners and to say that while you may not own the land, you do own the home, and there are some rights that we should ensure are protected here at the state.”

Mobile homes are important in the High Country and rural Colorado as an affordable housing option, McCluskie said.

“This was an opportunity for us to stand up for mobile home owners in the state, and we need to keep the conversation going,” McCluskie said while noting “there are plenty of good mobile home park owners.”

“If these bills kind of equalize that power relationship and help mobile home owners feel safer and better about home ownership, that’s great,” she said. “I hope that we continue the dialogue.”

Tawny Peyton, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Home Association and Utah Housing Alliance, said the association felt the bills were not needed or justified.

Peyton called the bills overarching, potentially unconstitutional and detrimental to landlords.

“In addition, they unfairly and improperly singled out our industry,” Peyton wrote in an email. “We were able to negotiate several amendments but did not come close to getting everything we asked for. Enough amendments were added to the bill that we did agree to change our original opposed position to neutral.”

Peyton said that while the bills will help residents of mobile home parks, there is no “upside” for landlords. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she said the association is concerned about additional burdens for park owners who also are experiencing financial hardships.

“Throughout the process, we were presented with unacceptable proposals and negotiated to make them more workable, but we’re certainly not thrilled with more regulation of our industry,” Peyton wrote.

Peyton said the passage of last year’s bill has a projected cost of more than $800,000 per year to the manufactured and modular home industry, which is the largest provider of unsubsidized affordable housing.

“Our hope now is that we are given time to implement all of the new changes from the past two years and see how well the changes work at addressing the issues that they were created to resolve,” Peyton wrote.

Jack Regenbogen, senior attorney at the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, was heavily involved in the legislative process of the two bills. Regenbogen said much of his work focuses on housing for Coloradans who are experiencing poverty.

Regenbogen cited the challenges that mobile home owners experience due to the partial ownership of where they live — owning the home but not the land — and said it can be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for them to leave as it can cost upward of $10,000 to move a mobile home. When people are evicted, he said they often abandon their mobile home and forfeit their primary asset.

Regenbogen said the two bills signed Tuesday are intended to bolster housing security and protect the rights of mobile home park residents, including raising the threshold for an eviction, giving people more time and opportunities to resolve an issue before they can be evicted and requiring that more notice be given to residents if the park will undergo a change of use, requiring residents to be evicted. There also are anti-retaliation protections and right-to-privacy establishments.

“I think it’s going to go a long way in terms of protecting the rights of mobile home residents and ensuring that they’re treated fairly,” Regenbogen said.

Regenbogen said he is most excited about the eviction protections the legislation provides.

“Right now, post COVID, we’re looking at an unprecedented eviction crisis,” he said. “Anything that we can do to help mitigate the adverse consequences of what is expected to occur as courts resume holding eviction hearings is going to be incredibly valuable.”

Eagle County mandates masks in new COVID-19 public health order

Masks in indoor public spaces in Eagle County are no longer a recommendation — they’re a requirement.

Eagle County Public Health and Environment has updated the county’s public health order regarding COVID-19, which includes the mask ordinance.

“We are taking this step now to protect the progress we’ve made, as well as our near- and long-term goals of a successful school year, ski season and beyond,”  said Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry. “We believe the potential inconvenience of wearing masks is a small price to pay to protect that future.”

In alignment with the county’s Transition Trail Map and with modifications in accordance with a variance from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), the move to the black diamond phase will take place on July 3. 

Current disease surveillance data has pushed Eagle County into a cautious state with recent increases in spread noted in the county and region. In addition, state and national transmission data continues to increase with several states slowing down their reopening plan in advance of the holiday weekend.

“Our ability to keep the virus in check and slow the spread at a community level is based on our individual behaviors,” said Heath Harmon, Director of Eagle County Public Health and Environment. “The recent increases in Eagle County warrant everyone’s caution. Whether you are a local or a visitor, we want you to reduce contact with others and remain vigilant with the Five Commitments of Containment.”

  • I will maintain 6 feet of distance
  • I will wash my hands often
  • I will cover my face in public
  • I will stay home when I am sick
  • I will get tested immediately if I have symptoms

The revised Eagle County Public Health Order reflects these current disease trends and holds gatherings sizes at lower levels than originally requested in the variance sent to the CDPHE, while also implementing a requirement for face coverings in public indoor settings.

Specifically, group sizes are limited to up to 100 people indoors and 175 people outdoors as long as 6 feet of distance between non-household members can be maintained. 

All community members are strongly encouraged to read the entire order. Notable changes include:

-Allows gatherings of up to 100 people indoors and 175 people outdoors. Six feet of distance will still be required between non-household members. Multiple groups may be allowed in separate spaces indoors, or with 20 feet of  distance between groups outdoors.   
-Requires customers and guests to wear face coverings when entering any place of business or public indoor environment, and requires all individuals to wear face coverings in public outdoor spaces when less than 6 feet of physical distance from non-household members is expected to continue for 15 minutes or longer.
-Removes capacity limits for short-term lodging. Six feet of distance will still be required for non-household members. 
-Continues requirements that all visitors be free of any symptoms consistent with COVID-19 for 10 days prior to arrival in Eagle County. 
-Continues isolation requirements for people who are sick and quarantine requirements for people who have been exposed to someone who is sick.

The county has updated its Business Toolkit and its Q&A resource to help with the transition. A communitywide education campaign geared toward visitors is also being deployed.

Also, in the coming weeks Eagle County Public Health and Environment will update its COVID-19 monitoring dashboard to include additional demographic data. The new information is intended to help provide insights into how the disease is affecting the community, and greater access to data used to make public health decisions.

Amtrak to reduce daily service to Glenwood Springs this fall, potentially pick it back up next summer

Amtrak’s California Zephyr daily service to Glenwood Springs will be reduced to three times a week starting Oct. 1, the company announced.

Because of COVID-19’s long-term impact on ridership, Amtrak is adjusting its northeast corridor and state-supported services as well as reducing its long-distance train services, a news release said. 

“Our goal is to restore daily service on these routes (including the California Zephyr) as demand warrants, potentially by the summer of 2021,” the news release said.

Running from Chicago to San Francisco, the California Zephyr line brings thousands of visitors to Glenwood Springs each year and is the primary means of transport for the city’s thriving Amish tourism sector, said Ken Murphy, the Glenwood Adventure Company president.

“Train tourism has always been big for Glenwood,” Murphy said, explaining he helped market the area to groups who abstain from moderntravel methods. “We have a lot of Amish visitors that come to us by train from Indiana, Illinois and Pennsylvania.”

 

After building friendships with some of the Adventure Company’s Amish visitors, Murphy said he started visiting their communities and events where word spread about Glenwood Spring’s numerous attractions.

“It’s not a traditional tourist market, but family is everything for the Amish — they travel together,” he explained. “And, Glenwood Springs has something for everyone. Plus, we have a very respectful community that they enjoy visiting.”

Train traffic accounts for about 95 percent of the Adventure Company’s Amish customers, Murphy said. 

“Losing train days will certainly hurt, but it will be less so if they only do it in the off season,” he added. “If they decide not to bring back daily service by next summer, we might take a serious hit.” 

The California Zephyr is popular with locals and visitors alike. 

“The train is sold out a lot of the time, especially the stretch from Denver to Glenwood Springs,” Murphy said. “It’s an incredible journey, and train visitors tend to stay for longer, which is great for the whole community.” 

Glenwood Springs Tourism Director Lisa Langer said about 1 million people visit Glenwood Springs throughout the year, many of whom come by train. 

“Our Amish visitors make up quite a significant number of our visitors in the summer and early fall,” Langer said. “And, we promote that train line heavily, especially to our international guests.”

Foreign film crews, travel writers and tourists from around the globe have praised the train ride between Glenwood Springs and Denver, Langer explained.

“The California Zephyr route is really important to our tourist base,” she said. “It could really hurt us if they do not reinstate daily service next summer.”

ifredregill@postindependent.com

Denver man in Garfield County Jail after high-speed chase ended in his arrest June 25 near Silt

A Denver man remained in the Garfield County Jail on Monday facing a laundry list charges including aggravated motor vehicle theft after he led police on a high-speed chase on Interstate 70 west of Glenwood Springs last Thursday afternoon.

The 30-year-old suspect remained in custody Monday on $11,500 bond after making an initial court appearance Friday to be advised of charges that also include driving while under the influence of drugs and possession of stolen license plates and credit cards.

Garfield County Sheriff’s deputies picked up a vehicle chase at about 3:50 p.m. June 25 involving a stolen red Prius that began in Eagle County westbound on I-70.

According to an arrest affidavit in the case, pursuing officers from Eagle County pulled back at the Hanging Lake Tunnel in Glenwood Canyon and advised Garfield County officers to be on the lookout for the stolen vehicle coming through Glenwood Springs.

The police chase resumed just past the West Glenwood exit in Glenwood Springs, reaching speeds of more than 100 miles per hour through South Canyon and past New Castle before a spike strip halted the vehicle just west of Silt.

Upon approaching the vehicle after it had stopped, officers reportedly observed several syringes on the floor of the car, and the suspect upon being removed from the car “appeared to be very high,” possibly on heroin, according to the affidavit.

After the suspect was arrested, a search of the vehicle turned up two license plates that had been reported stolen out of the Denver area, as had the car. Also found among the man’s possession were four credit cards, two Colorado ID cards and a blank check not belonging to the suspect.

The suspect is due back in court July 16 to answer to charges including felonies for vehicle theft, theft of the license plates and credit cards, drug possession with intent to distribute, and possession of weapons by a previous offender, plus several misdemeanor charges.

A pandemic exposed the cracks in Colorado’s school funding system and changed the conversation

The 2020 Colorado legislative session opened with high hopes for increasing teacher pay, strengthening school safety, bolstering student mental health services, and improving funding for higher education and K-12.

The coronavirus pandemic crushed those hopes and brought significant budget impacts that not only sidelined this year’s education agenda but reversed much of the progress made last year. At one point, budget writers even floated the idea of defunding full-day kindergarten, the signature accomplishment of the 2019 legislative session.

But, through all of the painful decisions, there were victories large and small.

Most significantly, the budget crisis amplified conversations about addressing long-standing challenges that have plagued school finance.

“The COVID crisis put a massive spotlight on the inequities in all the ways we fund schools,” said Leslie Colwell of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, which has lobbied for school finance changes for years. “Given the challenges [legislators] faced when they returned, this turned out to be a tremendous session, perhaps the most significant in years.”

Next year’s projected $3.3 billion revenue shortfall guided almost every discussion. Lawmakers returned from a two-month coronavirus recess and tabled roughly 300 bills, many because they cost money the state doesn’t have. Lawmakers did pass a host of bills to protect low-income workers and families from the effects of the pandemic, as well as a sweeping police accountability bill that days and nights of protests outside the Capitol made urgent.

Lawmakers cut more than a billion dollars to K-12 and higher education to fill the budget hole. The 2020-21 budget, approved last week, is filled with large tradeoffs, said House Speaker K.C. Becker, a Boulder Democrat.

“No matter what you’re doing … in this world that we’re in right now, you’re going to be taking resources from one area and shifting them to another. There’s just no getting around that,” she said.

Amid all the cuts, lawmakers preserved funding for kindergarten and existing public preschool slots, as well as protecting programs for student mental health and English language learners. They also took up complicated property tax issues that have made it harder to pay for K-12 education, along with proposals to increase revenue without going to the voters.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, started the session by pushing a bill to increase teacher and staff pay in cash-strapped districts and calling for Colorado to fully fund its schools by 2022. The session ended with Colorado withholding almost $1.2 billion from schools when compared to constitutional requirements, a level not seen since the depths of the Great Recession.

“We’re well back from square one, and it is hard to see beyond that, knowing what that means for our students,” said union President Amie Baca-Oehlert. She was heartened to see lawmakers looking for ways to find new revenue, including through tax code changes.

“This crisis exposed more broadly the problems and challenges with our structure,” she said. “It allowed us to have those conversations that we have been having all along, but in a more urgent way.”

Luke Ragland of the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado said he was disappointed that lawmakers chose across-the-board cuts rather than more targeted cuts that would shift more money to small rural districts and those that serve more students in poverty. He also lamented that the school finance act contains a property tax change that is likely to end up in court.

But he agreed that the budget crisis has changed the conversation and that the next session could see bigger changes in a school funding system that doesn’t address student needs.

“Are we going to make cuts that protect students or protect districts?” he asked. “That is going to be the fundamental question.”

And he predicted that a Republican education agenda focused on parent choice that didn’t make progress this year will become more urgent next year, as parents try to find a good education amid a checkerboard of in-person, online, and hybrid models.

“I promise you right now that wealthy families will move to find the opportunities they need, whether that’s in person or a higher quality online experience,” he said. “Access for open enrollment becomes incredibly important because the stakes have been raised for families.”

While some of the proposed solutions didn’t get bipartisan support, Democratic lawmakers argued the proposals lay the groundwork for shoring up school funding in future years.

Becker, who is barred by term limits from running again, acknowledged that some of the solutions didn’t draw much Republican support. She said tough decisions needed to be made and likely will need to be made next year by those who succeed her.

“If folks are frustrated with [the changes], I would invite folks to participate in discussions to figure it out because Colorado is unique in its challenges,” Becker said.

School funding dominates the conversation

K-12 education takes up 36% of Colorado’s general fund, so there was no way for schools to escape cuts when budget writers faced a 25% reduction in revenue. The school finance act cuts average per-pupil spending about 5%, a decrease to about $8,000. Many school districts are planning pay freezes, furloughs, and staff cuts. Lawmakers also cut tens of millions to grant programs that fund school construction, pay for social workers in schools, and support programs to reduce the dropout rate.

Gov. Jared Polis provided some relief to schools in the form of $510 million in federal relief money, but district officials are concerned it won’t be flexible enough to fill budget holes.

Lawmakers also took up proposals to bring in more revenue. A compromise change to the state’s tax code will bring in $156 million over the next three years. That’s less than backers had hoped, but Polis had signaled he would veto the original version of the bill. In November, voters will be asked to approve a nicotine tax that could provide money for rural schools and a long-awaited preschool expansion.

The legislature declined to recommend a graduated income tax, but citizen groups will keep working to put that measure on the ballot.

Due to the complicated interaction of constitutional provisions and ongoing economic problems, next year’s budget picture could be even worse than this year’s. A proposal to ask voters to take up a property tax change to avoid the erosion of school funding drew bipartisan support.

The school finance act also contained a provision that could allow a future legislature to increase local school district taxes. Republicans condemned the proposal, which is likely to end up in court. If the provision were upheld, it could be a game changer in a state where government spending is constrained by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

Higher education helps balance the budget

Colorado’s public colleges and universities have continuously shouldered the burden of helping balance the state budget during economic downturns. Not much changed this time.

Lawmakers cut $493 million from statewide higher education, amounting to a 58% cut in state general fund support. Although state money makes up only a small portion of Colorado higher education budgets, the cut would have meant insolvency for some schools. Student tuition contributes most educational revenue and some schools project enrollment declines in the fall.

The state investment is a massive shift from the 2.5% increase Polis wanted for colleges and universities.

Polis did send $450 million in federal coronavirus relief money to schools, amounting to a 5% cut in state money for schools. It’s unclear whether lawmakers will build next year’s budget based on the idea that this was a 5% cut or a 58% cut.

The state will have less money to fund scholarships and financial aid. And schools have announced employee layoffs, furloughs, and pay cuts.

Lawmakers also postponed bills that required budgetary expenses, such as emergency assistance grants to students, pilot programs to promote student completion, and an educator loan forgiveness program.

Silver linings for higher ed
Lawmakers approved a change to the state’s funding model in the hopes that it will better align money to student outcomes rather than just enrollment. The change will go into effect in the 2021-22 fiscal year.

Prospective college students will be able to earn school credit for work-related experience starting in the 2023 school year, and lawmakers approved in-state tuition for military families regardless if they are Colorado residents.

The state will also now require the Colorado Department of Higher Education to collect data needed to calculate the return on investment of private, public, and occupational degree programs.

Before the pandemic, lawmakers voted to grant college athletes the right to receive compensation for the use of their name, image, and likeness.

The coronavirus also kickstarted the conversation over whether higher education institutions should use the ACT and SAT for student admittance. State colleges will stop using both when admitting 2021 high school graduates.

Nationally, there is a debate among colleges whether the test is fair to students of color and those from low-income backgrounds.

School safety

After last year’s shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch, the legislature convened a special committee to work on school safety issues, including improving coordination among law enforcement, mental health providers, and school systems. In pursuit of bipartisan solutions, the committee steered clear of gun control proposals.

The legislature passed a recommended bill to create a committee to keep working on the issues and another to require schools to treat mental health as an excused absence. But a proposal to revamp the state’s once-groundbreaking hotline, Safe2Tell, was set aside, as was another to give teachers more training on recognizing and responding to mental health concerns.

Immunizations

Colorado’s immunization rates are among the lowest in the nation, and public health experts are concerned the state could be vulnerable to outbreaks of a host of preventable diseases as more parents skipped checkups and shots during lockdown. Legislation passed this year makes it slightly harder for parents to opt out of required vaccinations for non-medical reasons.

The bill was one of the most contested of the shortened session, with parents opposed to vaccines chanting for hours outside a committee hearing room.

Previously, parents only had to write a note to the school district. Now they’ll need a doctor’s note or to demonstrate they watched a video about vaccine science before declining immunizations. Schools will also have to release reports to parents detailing immunization rates in the student body.

Teacher workforce

Lawmakers passed a bill that combines funding for many existing teacher recruitment and training programs to allow for more flexibility. Some older programs were severely underutilized, while others had more demand than they could meet. The change is meant to ensure money is available for the programs that best meet student needs.

The governor’s office tapped federal relief money to save a teacher training program that was set to be defunded.

But new proposals to address the state’s persistent teacher shortage were tabled, as was a bill to study and remove barriers faced by teachers of color, the union-backed teacher pay bill, and a new tax credit for educators who spend their own money on school supplies.

Legislators also made it easier for retired teachers to reenter the classroom while keeping pension benefits, but with COVID-19 raising health concerns, that change may draw fewer educators than otherwise.

Special education

Under legislation passed this year, Colorado teachers will need to get more training on working with students with disabilities to renew their licenses. This is part of a strategy of using teacher licensure requirements to address educational system inequities. In recent years, the State Board of Education has required all teachers to get training on working with English language learners, and lawmakers required more training on reading instruction for elementary teachers.

Parent advocates faced a setback, though, as a bill aimed at making it easier for parents of students with autism to request outside therapists was tabled. And to shore up the education budget, lawmakers diverted money from a special fund that offsets the cost of serving students with severe disabilities and medical needs.

Accountability and school governance

At the start of the session, some education interest groups were calling for an audit of the accountability system by which the state measures school performance and determines which schools need intervention. Already controversial, it was tabled during the abbreviated session.

Faced with several months of remote learning this school year and the prospect of hybrid education models and rolling closures in the fall, some groups called for the accountability system to be suspended entirely. Instead, the school finance act calls for a working group to figure out what testing, school ratings, turnaround plans, and teacher evaluation should look like during the strange year to come.

Bills to limit campaign donations in school board races and allow 16-year-olds to vote also failed to advance.

But the legislature did approve one governance change that proved to be timely: allowing remote attendance at school board meetings.

Colorado Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news organization that focuses on education in Colorado and other states. For more, go to chalkbeat.com.

This story is a part of the Colorado News Share service, which The Aspen Times is a contributing member.

Water main fixed in Glenwood; use restrictions to expire at 5 p.m. today