Cherry Creek School District students back for in-person classes

Decrease in new COVID cases cited, but trend appears to be reversing

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Cherry Creek School District returned to an in-person learning schedule for all grades on Jan. 11, with elementary students attending five days a week while middle and high school students attend on alternating days.

Because Mondays are online-class days for all middle and high school students, those who chose in-person learning in grades six through 12 returned to classrooms Jan. 12 and Jan. 13 according to which cohort the students are in.

The decision to resume in-person learning was confirmed a week earlier, after several weeks of declining rates of new coronavirus cases in Arapahoe County. The district moved forward with a plan it announced in December for reopening in-person classes in spring semester.

But district Superintendent Scott Siegfried, in a Jan. 4 letter to the community, still repeated what has become a common refrain among local school district officials.

“The lower our incidence rates, the easier it will be for us to operate schools during this time and keep schools open for students who choose in-person learning,” Siegfried wrote. A county's “incidence rate” is a measure of its new COVID-19 cases over time.

If Arapahoe County's incidence rate in a two-week period was greater than 500 per 100,000 people on Jan. 4, the Cherry Creek district was to communicate a decision as to whether all schools would open for in-person learning; or elementary schools would open in-person, and middle and high schools would remain online until a later time; or all students would remain 100% online.

When making decisions, Siegfried planned to consider the county's incidence rate as well as the trend or direction in which cases are moving.

“As an example, today, at an incidence rate of 819 per 100,000 people, with a clear downward trend in cases, we will return to in-person learning,” Siegfried wrote in a Dec. 15 letter. “If the rate is that high and is increasing, I will consider starting remotely.”

In the Jan. 4 letter, the district confirmed it would move forward with its plan to start the semester remotely on Jan. 6, with in-person classes resuming Jan. 11. In early January, Arapahoe County's daily rate of new cases continued to show a general decline that began several weeks prior.

But a few days later, the trend appeared to be reversing amid what may shape up as a post-holiday spike in cases, according to statewide and Tri-County Health Department data. Arapahoe County's incidence rate had already ticked up to 512 as of Jan. 8.

The overall trend is not clear yet, Tri-County Health chief John Douglas said during a Jan. 7 virtual town hall event. Tri-County Health covers Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties.

The numbers look much better than they did around Thanksgiving, but “we are not out of the woods by any means,” Douglas said.

Quarantines a challenge

Keeping students in school becomes difficult at or above roughly 500-700 new cases per 100,000 people in a county, Littleton Public Schools Superintendent Brian Ewert said in a Dec. 15 online news conference with other metro-area school superintendents. That was a reference to data from the Metro Denver Partnership for Health, an organization led by the six public health agencies serving the seven-county metro area.

When cases become widespread enough, staffing and numbers of substitute teachers begin to become the weak link in keeping schools running in-person due to mounting quarantines, the metro-area superintendents said.

Since Aug. 14, more than 3,900 students were told to quarantine, according to a report for a Dec. 14 Cherry Creek school board meeting. That represents about 7% of the district's roughly 55,000 students. In that same time, 553 staff members — about 6% of the district's 9,000 staff — were told to quarantine.

As the rate of new cases continued on a steep climb in Arapahoe, the district moved all students who attended in-person classes to online schooling in November.

Slightly different plan

The district this school year has operated on a “blended” plan for grades six through 12 that puts half of students in school Tuesdays and Wednesdays, with the other half attending Thursday and Friday.

Families had the option to put their students in the district's online program. As of July 29, more than 9,400 students had registered for fully online school.

Now, middle and high school students are expected to follow a revised model that provides more time with teachers, according to Siegfried's Dec. 15 letter. For four days per week, half of students who choose in-person classes will attend school — as they did last semester — and those students will also have one day of online classes per week, according to the district's plan for spring semester.

Elementary students who choose in-person classes will attend school five days per week, according to the district's plan.

Online students enrolled in the K-5 online program and Cherry Creek Elevation will continue following their same schedule.

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