Nearly 4,000 Cherry Creek Schools students quarantined in fall semester

District sent more than 200 letters about COVID cases, symptoms at dozens of schools

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As the Cherry Creek School District hopes for a January return to in-person classes, the district's data show that the number of students quarantined in this school year's second quarter more than doubled compared to the first quarter.

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% — were told to quarantine.

Statements from the school district in recent weeks have argued that little evidence shows the coronavirus spreading prominently in schools.

“We can demonstrate, in schools that universally implement the recommended, multiple overlapping safety strategies, COVID is not spread to any meaningful degree,” the report says.

The number of people who became “knowingly” positive for COVID-19 during their quarantine period was just 16, or 0.4% of the students who were told to quarantine. Just 10 staff members became knowingly positive, making up 1.8% of the total who were told to quarantine.

The “knowingly” caveat is likely a nod to the limitation in the data: Not all students and staff decide to undergo testing for COVID-19 while in quarantine. Some may have asymptomatic cases, and some may have symptoms but choose not to get tested.

“As in every other sector of the country, we are not able to account for the possibility of asymptomatic positives,” the report says.

The school district has offered 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.

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 dozens of schools and a couple of programs during the fall semester, according to the district's website. In that time, 236 letters were 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.

Apart from those who were told to quarantine, 1,840 students and 19 staff members were moved to remote classes for “operational” reasons, due to a “lack of staff to safely run schools,” the report says.

Since Aug. 14, 620 students and 352 staff members tested positive for COVID-19, the report says.

In the school year's first quarter — through early October — the district told more than 1,200 students and more than 150 staff members to quarantine.

Cherry Creek district's quarantine numbers were similar to data from across 35 school districts in Colorado. About 0.4% of students who completed quarantine tested positive during the quarantine period, and 1.9% of staff who completed quarantine tested positive during the quarantine period.

Slight changes to in-person

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 a Dec. 15 letter to the community from Superintendent Scott Siegfried. 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.

Return depends on virus spread

The district's return to in-person school in January depends on the broader Arapahoe County community's ability to lower the rate of spread of COVID-19, according to Siegfried's letter.

In Arapahoe County, the “incidence rate” — the rate of new cases — sat at over 819 cases per 100,000 people in the last two weeks, according to the Dec. 15 letter. As of Dec. 26, the rate had fallen to 560, according to Tri-County Health Department data. The impact of gatherings over the Christmas holiday period remained to be seen.

“We also know from this year that when we follow public health guidelines, we can drive those numbers down,” the letter says.

Keeping students in school becomes difficult at or above roughly 500-700 new cases per 100,000 people in a county in a two-week time frame, 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.

Like a “house of cards,” in-person school planning “literally begins to collapse” at that level of COVID-19 spread due to mounting quarantines, Ewert said.

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

According to the Cherry Creek school board meeting report, if Arapahoe County's incidence rate is greater than 500 on Jan. 4, the Cherry Creek district was to communicate a decision as to the following options:

• All schools open for in-person learning.

• Elementary schools open in-person, and middle and high schools remain online until a later time.

• All students remain 100% online.

When making decisions, Siegfried plans 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 the Dec. 15 letter. “If the rate is that high and is increasing, I will consider starting remotely.”

Tentatively, the semester was to begin remotely on Jan. 6, with in-person classes resuming Jan. 11.

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