Cherry Creek schools 'hopeful' to make masks optional in August

Tri-County Health will guide district on quarantines, continue contact tracing

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After Colorado lifted its school requirements for masks, quarantines and COVID-19 outbreak protocols, the Cherry Creek School District announced a tentative plan for making masks optional in August and signaled that quarantines will still continue to some extent.

“We are lifting mask requirements for all summer programs, except for the Extended School Year (ESY) program, which will still require masks to be worn indoors,” a July 9 letter to the community from district Superintendent Christopher Smith said.

The district is “hopeful that masks will be optional for all students and staff when school resumes in August,” the letter said.

"We are planning for that likelihood but will continue monitoring state and local guidance before making a definitive decision,” the letter said. “Even if masks are optional when we return, anyone who is not fully vaccinated will be strongly encouraged to wear a mask while indoors.”

All grade levels in Cherry Creek will be back in the classroom starting Aug. 18.

In late spring, Colorado still required masks in schools unless people could prove they were vaccinated.

At the time, vaccinated Coloradans — including children who are eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine — could remove masks where the teachers or caregivers had provided proof of fully completed vaccination to their employer.

But ultimately, allowing students and teachers to go maskless was up to school districts. Cherry Creek district generally stuck to its policy requiring mask-wearing for the last couple weeks of the school year.

“All students and staff must continue to wear masks inside schools. They no longer need to wear them outside,” Abbe Smith, district spokesperson, said in late May.

May 28 was the last day of school for all schools in the district.

Quarantines to continue

Along with removing mask requirements for schools, Colorado's updated public health order also repealed the mandate for schools to follow the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment guidance on outbreaks and other instances of COVID-19 cases. The updated order took effect July 1.

Schools no longer need to adhere to the broad quarantine and isolation requirements in previous public health orders, according to the Colorado State Joint Information Center, which takes questions for the state public-health department.

But school districts and local public health agencies could make their own decisions as to whether to impose outbreak, quarantine or mask requirements that go beyond what the state mandates.

The Tri-County Health Department — the local public health agency for Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties — will continue contact-tracing COVID-19 cases next school year and “will guide the school district when quarantining is necessary,” the letter said, adding that the school district will no longer have a separate in-house contact-tracing team. Contact tracing is a term for when public health workers notify people that they may have been exposed to someone with COVID-19.

It was unclear from the school district's July 9 letter as to what the district's standards for instructing students or staff to quarantine will be.

Vaccine reminder

The district's letter reminded the community that all people age 12 or older can receive the free COVID-19 vaccine.

“If you would like to get the vaccine for yourself or your child, please take advantage of the many vaccination resources listed on our website,” located here, the letter said.

Those with questions about the vaccine can also call the Colorado COVID-19 Vaccine Hotline at 1-877-CO VAX CO (1-877-268-2926).

“The COVID-19 vaccine is the best way to protect yourself, your family, our students and our community from the COVID-19 virus, including more contagious and potentially dangerous variants that are on the rise in Colorado. It is also one of the best ways to keep our schools open,” Smith's letter said.

District's changing policies

At the start of the 2020-21 school year, Cherry Creek district operated under a hybrid, or “blended,” model for grades six through 12 that placed half of students in school Tuesdays and Wednesdays, with the other half attending Thursday and Friday.

The district decided to move entirely to online classes in early November amid a steep climb in the daily rate of new COVID-19 cases in Arapahoe County. It brought the blended in-person schedule back in January.

All middle and high schools in the district reopened for full-time, in-person classes on April 5. Earlier in the spring semester, the Douglas County, Jefferson County, Littleton, Adams 12 Five Star and Weld Re-8 school districts had made similar decisions. Westminster Public Schools was providing full-time, in-person learning at all levels since the semester began.

Through all the changes in Cherry Creek, many families had chosen to enroll students in the district's voluntary online programs — the new K-5 program and Cherry Creek Elevation. As of mid-January, the district had about 10,100 students enrolled in online class. Cherry Creek has roughly 55,000 students total.

Preschool and K-5 students who did not choose online schooling had been in full-time in-person classes since the start of the school year except for when all district students went remote in late fall.

Quarantine numbers

Cherry Creek School District's number of individuals who were told to quarantine during the fourth quarter — from March 13 through about the end of the school year — reached essentially the same level it did in the previous quarter.

In the third quarter, from January through around the quarter's end on March 12, the district alerted 4,066 students and staff to quarantine, according to a March 10 district letter to the community.

From the start of fourth quarter to roughly the end of the school year, the district told 4,063 staff and students to quarantine.

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