In July, Cherry Creek School District developed a four-part metric to determine whether it's safe to have in-person classes or if the district needs to entirely operate remotely.
The district's metric included Arapahoe County's percentage of COVID-19 tests that show as positive; the county's number of hospitalizations; its 14-day rate of cases per 100,000 people, also called the “incidence” rate; and its daily case count. The last two pieces of data are both ways to track the number of added cases over time.
“As we went through the semester, our teachers asked us to look at internal measures to schools, which I agreed with and supported,” Superintendent Scott Siegfried said in an Oct. 19 video message to the community. “So we looked at in September adding two measures of (data) internal to our schools.”
Those two new data pieces were active cases among staff and among students.
The district piloted, or tested, that system for four weeks before formally adopting it on Oct. 5 “so we have a measure of what's happening in our schools in addition to what's happening in our community,” Siegfried said.
Each of the six data pieces entails a score of up to 2 points, so each day's total score based on the data can be up to 12 points.
If the points are 7 or greater, it means the district deems it safe to continue in-person class; if it's 5 or fewer, the metric suggests moving to entirely online class. But it takes a “sustained seven- to 14-day change” to cause the district to move into or out of in-person classes, Siegfried said.
Amid a spike in cases in Arapahoe and Adams counties, the district scored a 6 for a few days in mid-October. That score triggers discussions with Tri-County Health Department to prepare for a possible transition to online class, according to the district.
“Last week, I sent you a letter that shared that we hit a number 6, and we did for a while hit a number 6 on our scale, and I did have conversations with Tri-County about what they see coming,” Siegfried said in the video.
Since then, the district's score on the metric has hovered just above 6. On Oct. 20, the score was 8, and on Oct. 21, it was 7.
Siegfried reminded the community that regardless of the day-to-day fluctuation, it takes a sustained seven- to 14-day change to cause a transition.
In the school year's first quarter — through early October — Cherry Creek School District told more than 1,200 students and more than 150 staff members to quarantine, the district's head official announced in a video message to the community.
The district has sent letters alerting families about COVID-19 cases or observations of symptoms — both of which triggered quarantines or other student dismissals under state guidelines — regarding roughly three dozen schools and a couple of programs as of Oct. 21, according to the district's website. At that time, 72 letters had been sent.
Not all of the letters announced quarantines — some cases were expected to have no impact on other students or staff. Eventually, the district changed its policy on letters to “only communicate regarding cases that have an impact on the school,” such as causing a quarantine.
The number of students quarantined in the first quarter represents about 2% of the district's student population of roughly 55,000 students. The second quarter began in mid-October.
Many students this year are enrolled in the district's online program. As of July 29, more than 9,400 students had registered for fully online school.
The roughly 150 staff members who were quarantined also represent about 2% of the district's 9,000 staff.
Under guidance from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, depending on the situation, COVID-19 symptoms — not just cases — can trigger a dismissal of students. The entire sixth grade at Falcon Creek Middle School was moved to online classes through Sept. 11 after a student exhibited major COVID-19 symptoms after exposure to a person who tested positive, according to the district.
Of the total number of those quarantined in first quarter, “only six individuals became COVID positive during quarantine,” said Scott Siegfried, the district's superintendent, in the Oct. 19 video message to the community. That represents about 0.5% of the total number of those quarantined, he added. The six individuals are a mix of students and staff, according to the district.
But Siegfried's statement only takes into account the number of individuals who tested positive, leaving out those who may have had asymptomatic cases or did not decide to seek testing.
"We report all of the cases that we are aware of," said Abbe Smith, spokeswoman for the school district. "I would say that based on the fact that the reported number of cases is so low, we are not seeing the virus spread in schools."
John Douglas, head of Tri-County Health Department, which covers Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties, said it's “quite striking” how few recorded cases there have been in schools.
“What we can say is the following: We look pretty carefully at cases of new infection by age group,” Douglas told Colorado Community Media. “New infections are going up in school-age kids but not as high as in older populations. It's really people between 20 and late 40s where increase is.” That tells him the problem is the spread of the virus in the broader community, not in schools, he added.
Douglas noted Cherry Creek's low percentage of cases. But he acknowledged that asymptomatic transmission of the virus is a possibility.
The school district offers free COVID-19 testing for all staff, but its number of staff members tested may have been less than 40% in September and early October, according to district data.
“I think the question (about asymptomatic virus spread) … is more likely to be true for students since they aren't getting tested regularly,” Douglas said.
Douglas said on Oct. 9 that ascertaining how much the virus is being transmitted in schools “is still a work in progress.”
But “at least based on the best ability we have to quantify it,” in-person class doesn't appear to be increasing community transmission, Douglas said on Oct. 16.
A presentation to the school district's Board of Education — the group of elected officials who vote on district policy — noted that as of Oct. 5, zero staff members had tested positive for COVID-19 during quarantine.
“I want you to understand that schools are safe compared to everything else in that's in our community and society,” Siegfried said in his Oct. 19 video, referencing the district's mask-wearing requirement, increased ventilation, COVID-19 testing and emphasis on hand-sanitizing.
Since early September, Arapahoe, Adams and Douglas counties saw their first notably sustained increases in rates of new COVID-19 cases since July, according to Tri-County data. As cases in Arapahoe and Adams counties spiked, Tri-County issued new public health orders for Arapahoe and Adams on Oct. 16 that move up the last call for alcohol and tighten limits on personal gatherings — and, for Adams, prohibit spectators at high school sporting events.
“As I follow the data in Arapahoe County and around our state, I am concerned,” Siegfried said in the video. “But I'm also hopeful. I'm hopeful that we continue to level out and to get better in Arapahoe County so we can continue schools. My greatest hope is that we don't go remote at any point, that we continue in person, because it's safe, and I know and you know it's the best thing to do for our students.”
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