Cherry Creek School District has argued that data suggests that “in schools that universally implement the recommended, multiple overlapping safety strategies, COVID is not spread to any meaningful degree,” according to a recent school board document.
By “meaningful degree,” the district appears to mean a level of spread at which school outbreaks are caused, according to page 19 of the “return to school planning” report for the school board’s Dec. 14 meeting.
Virtually all students in Denver and the surrounding suburbs were put in online classes as fall progressed and virus spread worsened, and the impact of that change on new COVID-19 cases in the metro area is unclear.
It’s possible that played a role in the decrease in rates of new cases in the metro area, said John Douglas, head of Tri-County Health Department, which oversees Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties.
Douglas has told Colorado Community Media previously that data suggest the problem is the spread of the virus in the broader community, not in schools. But he has acknowledged that asymptomatic transmission of the virus is a possibility regarding in-person classes.
But “the data are increasingly compelling that the measures schools took to prevent transmission have been very effective in preventing in-school transmission and allowing schools to be quite safe,” Douglas said on Dec. 10.
Gov. Jared Polis at a Dec. 15 news conference said data continues to suggest that schools generally aren’t a driver of COVID-19 spread in surrounding communities.
Under a recent update to state guidance in November, as long as districts adhere to strict protocols, broad quarantines of classes or cohorts are no longer necessary regardless of the level of virus spread in a county.
School districts can now generally use “targeted contact identification,” which means quarantining those within 6 feet of a person with COVID-19 or symptoms of the disease for 15 minutes or more when both parties are masked. It also requires quarantines when someone was within 12 feet of the individual for 15 minutes or greater when either party was unmasked and indoors.
What’s more, recent guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides options for reducing quarantine to seven days with a negative test at day five or later, or reducing quarantine to 10 days with no test for those who remain asymptomatic and “are aware of the need for daily symptom monitoring through the full 14 days of the standard quarantine approach,” a report by the Metro Denver Partnership for Health says.
“This strategy will allow students and staff to safely return to class sooner and will lessen the impact on the ability to keep schools open,” a letter from Cherry Creek School District Superintendent Scott Siegfried says.
The shortened quarantines may come with slightly higher risk of spreading COVID-19, though. See the introduction and the first chart on the CDC’s website at tinyurl.com/NewQuarantineGuidance for more details.
An initiative called COVIDCheck Colorado will be partnering with several metro-area districts, including Cherry Creek, for COVID-19 testing that allows people to exit quarantine. Districts also might have access, to some extent, for preemptive screening for students who aren’t in quarantine.
In Cherry Creek district, students and staff at elementary schools will have access to regular, no-cost saliva COVID testing to allow for early identification of COVID-positive children and adults who could also be asymptomatic, “creating a safer, more operationally feasible environment,” Siegfried’s letter says.
Middle and high school students will be able to access no-cost COVID testing at either of the district’s drive-up facilities. Tests can be scheduled through school nurses, the letter says.
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.
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.
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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