Quarantines growing at Littleton Public Schools

District hopes to avoid closing school buildings; too many students coming in sick, principal says

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Littleton Public Schools is averaging seven to eight quarantines a day since bringing middle and high school students back for full-time in-person learning in mid-March, district officials say.

More than 1,300 students had been placed in quarantines after being exposed to someone with a positive COVID-19 case between March 15 and April 8, said Melissa Cooper, the district’s director of student support services, at the April 8 school board meeting.

Of those, more than 600 have come from the high schools, Cooper said. Middle schools accounted for roughly 300 of the quarantined students, elementary schools accounted for roughly 275, preschools 21 and charter schools 95.

The average size of a quarantine at the high school level is 20 to 30 students at a time, Cooper said. Quarantines have come down to as little as eight days, driven by quicker turnaround time on COVID testing.

Who gets quarantined is driven by contact tracing and is applicable to anyone an infected student has been within six feet of for 15 minutes or longer. Quarantined students continue to receive instruction in their coursework online.

Prior to March 15, middle and high school students were on a “hybrid” schedule, with two days a week of classroom instruction, with the rest online. Elementary school students have largely been in-person full-time over the past school year.

The pace of quarantines has picked up significantly since the return to full-time in-person learning in upper grades, which district officials say they believe is driven by more students spending more time in close proximity to one another — but also by spring break travel and socializing outside school, Cooper said.

At Heritage High School, which was averaging a quarantine a day in early April, Principal Stacey Riendeau sent home a letter to parents saying too many children are coming to school while showing symptoms.

“I truly believe these students/families thought they had allergies or just a cold, but it turned out that they had COVID,” Riendeau’s letter reads in part. “I am very concerned that if these increases in cases and quarantines continue, they could result in a possible return to remote learning for all students. If that occurs, athletics, activities, clubs, and senior activities may also see negative impacts or even be cancelled. This is something we are all trying to avoid.”

Meanwhile, COVID case numbers were rising across Arapahoe County and Colorado, with one-week positivity rates hovering around 5% as of April 8.

The district will do what it can to avoid shutting down entire schools, said Superintendent Brian Ewert, saying efforts to keep school buildings open are being buoyed by increasing rates of teacher vaccination.

At least 58% of district staff had self-reported receiving at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as of April 8, Ewert told the board, though he said he believes the numbers are actually considerably higher.

The proof, he said, was in how few teachers have tested positive for COVID since the return to full-time in-person learning — just seven since March 15. Last fall, some schools buildings were closed after so many teachers tested positive that it became impossible to adequately supervise students.

Nearby Douglas County Schools saw a wave of school closures in early April, driven by numerous COVID outbreaks — defined as two or more positive cases within a student cohort. Littleton has had two outbreaks since March 15, Ewert said.

The quarantines are highly disruptive to student learning, said Amanda Crosby, who heads the district’s teachers’ union.

Quarantines have grown larger and more frequent since upper grades were brought back from hybrid learning, leaving teachers aggravated, she said.

“As difficult and frustrating as hybrid was, teachers and students had found ways to make it predictable,” Crosby said. “Students thrive when they have consistency, predictability and routine. Spring is already stressful for kids in upper grades dealing with AP and IB tests.”

The problem is exacerbated as the district enters the CMAS standardized testing window in mid-April, she said. Though students were given the option to opt out of the tests, only about a third of the student body did so.

“The tests have to be taken in-person,” Crosby said. “With so many kids in quarantine, makeup tests will get stretched out. It’s difficult in normal times to get makeup tests done. Now students will miss even more instruction and learning time.”

With positivity rates and case counts climbing, Crosby said if shutting school buildings again is necessary, the district ought to bite the bullet and do it.

“If we need to go remote to get this calmed down,” she said, “let’s do it sooner rather than later, before the numbers really go sky-high.”

Ewert said with data showing that much of the virus transmission is taking place due to travel and socializing, the broader community must play a role in keeping case counts in check.

Riendeau, the Heritage principal, appealed to families to do their part by getting vaccinated, wearing masks and practicing social distancing.

“We know the last year has been hard on everyone, especially our kids, but we truly hope the end is in sight if we can just hold on a bit longer,” she wrote.

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