Across south Denver metro school districts, thousands were told to quarantine or were otherwise moved to online class in broad dismissals of students following confirmed COVID-19 cases.
Nearly half the student population of one of Colorado’s largest high schools was temporarily removed from in-person classes after several Cherry Creek High School seniors tested positive for COVID-19 in cases that were “tied directly to students attending off-campus parties,” according to a Sept. 15 Cherry Creek School District letter to families.
As a result of the outbreak, 14 staff members and 146 students quarantined through Sept. 23.
Though not quarantined, Cherry Creek High’s remaining 1,585 students in the affected cohort were moved to online class through Sept. 23. Cherry Creek High includes more than 3,700 students.
Between Aug. 17, when school began in the district, and mid-September, the district told 835 students to quarantine. In that time, 90 staff members had been told to quarantine, and confirmed COVID-19 cases totaled 37 — plus the “several” cases from Creek in the outbreak.
In Littleton Public Schools, between Aug. 24, when in-person learning resumed across the district, and Sept. 25, the district saw 19 quarantines, spurred by 19 positive cases. A cumulative total of 768 students and 103 staff at seven schools had been sent home for two-week quarantines as of Sept. 25, according to district data.
A shortage of substitutes prompted the district to close Heritage High School to in-person learning completely in early September after about a third of the school’s teaching staff were quarantined.
Two high schools in Castle Rock switched to virtual learning for two weeks as the school district struggles to maneuver a substitute teacher shortage amid the pandemic.
The Douglas County School District notified both Douglas County High School and Castle View High School that students would learn virtually for two weeks beginning on Sept. 28.
Letters sent to each school community on Sept. 25 said the transition was primarily because the number of positive cases at each school resulted in “quarantines involving a large number of staff members.”
A spokeswoman said approximate enrollment at Douglas County High School is 1,800 students and at Castle View High School is 2,200 students.
Earlier that week, the district also transitioned Mountain Vista High School in Highlands Ranch to virtual learning under similar circumstances. Mountain Vista’s enrollment is approximately 2,300.
ThunderRidge High School became the fourth high school in the district to switch to virtual learning.
A letter sent to the Highlands Ranch school's community on Oct. 2 said there have been at least seven positive cases confirmed at the school since Sept. 21. More than two dozen staff were in quarantine.
A spokeswoman said in total there are 385 people quarantined from the school, which enrolls 1,900 students.
With thousands of students sent home from in-person classes or told to quarantine in the first several weeks of the school year in metro Denver districts, the state public-health department released relaxed guidelines outlining that in some cases, entire classes or larger groups of students no longer need to quarantine in response to a positive COVID-19 case.
In schools in counties operating under the strictest level of Colorado’s safer-at-home social distancing order — where the coronavirus’s spread remains relatively high — classes or cohorts of students would still be quarantined in response to a positive case under the new guidance, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
To minimize exposure when COVID-19 cases occur, students this year generally attend school in groups, or “cohorts,” of varying sizes. For example, Cherry Creek School District uses a plan for grades six through 12 that splits the student population in half.
On the other hand, in counties where the virus’s spread is milder, some schools can undergo more targeted quarantines of “close contacts” of an infected student instead of the student’s full class or cohort, according to the department. The new guidance was to take effect Oct. 5.
Quarantines and related dismissals of students from in-person classes have resulted in entire grade levels and schools moved temporarily to online classes in metro Denver school districts. Some school district leaders had raised complaints about the state public-health department’s policy.
“CDPHE has put out overburdensome guidance,” Superintendent Scott Siegfried said at a Cherry Creek School District school board meeting.
Siegfried took issue with classmates needing to quarantine regardless of how close they were to the student who tested positive.
“It’s becoming difficult to find substitutes” for classes whose teachers have been quarantined, Siegfried said at the board’s Sept. 14 meeting.
Littleton Public Schools Superintendent Brian Ewert recently called the quarantines “somewhat overreaching” and also called for narrower criteria for who should be sent home.
It appears superintendents received what they asked for, although the new guidance can still be difficult to follow.
Under the new CDPHE guidance, when one student — or one teacher or staff member — is confirmed to have COVID-19, schools should tell those who had contact with that person to quarantine. Depending on the situation, COVID-19 symptoms can also trigger a quarantine.
The earlier guidance from August said that if a student or staffer tests positive, a school should “dismiss classmates, (the) cohort and other in-school contacts.”
But state officials emphasized that broader quarantines shouldn’t entirely be discarded in light of the new guidance.
“Quarantining close contacts instead of an entire classroom is now an option in the guidance for schools that meet certain criteria but is not meant to be the new standard,” said a statement from the Colorado State Joint Information Center, which takes questions for the state public-health department. “In many situations, it is likely safer and more effective to continue to use the existing strategy of quarantining an entire classroom or cohort.”
The statement also said: “Due to prolonged periods spent in the same indoor classroom, it is often necessary to consider contacts beyond the traditional 6-foot, 15-minute definition in schools.”
In schools with small cohorts — where students and staff are together for more than one class period — the cohort should be quarantined if a student tests positive, the center said in its statement. Likewise, if the sick student or staffer was not wearing a mask consistently, or a class doesn’t have a consistent seating plan, the new, targeted quarantine strategy would not apply, the statement said.
“For these reasons, targeted quarantine is likely not a feasible strategy for elementary school classes,” the statement said. It added: “In younger classrooms, there is likely much more movement in the classroom and children are less likely to stay in their seats and maintain consistent physical distancing.”
When considering whether a school can use the new, targeted quarantine guidelines, the department’s guidance lists, among other items, the following criteria:
• A school’s county is under Colorado’s “protect our neighbors” or safer-at-home levels 1 or 2, reflecting relatively low or moderate virus spread;
• There is only one student or staff member in the class who has COVID-19 or is symptomatic;
• There is a plan in place to track and respond to illness-related absences in the school;
• Every class attended by the affected student or staff member has a seating chart;
• Students remain in their seats enough to make seating charts applicable;
• There is a plan in place to perform contact tracing in conjunction with local public health officials; and
• Screening is completed for each student and staff member each day.
If a school meets those criteria, it should quarantine students who were within six feet of the individual for 15 minutes or longer when both parties were masked — or those who were within 12 feet of the individual for 15 minutes or longer when either party was unmasked indoors.
For schools that don’t meet the criteria, guidance says to quarantine students that same way — along with students who were in a classroom with the individual for 40 minutes or greater.
Taken together, that means in schools in counties operating under the most restrictive safer-at-home level, classes or cohorts would be quarantined if there is a positive case, the statement said. In large cohorts, students might not be in the same class as an infected person for 40 minutes or longer, but they still may make contact during mealtime, class breaks and so on, a follow-up statement from the center explained. But the center didn’t immediately clarify why the guidance would mean entire cohorts would be quarantined.
The state’s school guidance also says a close contact is a person who:
• Came within six feet of someone who has COVID-19, even if they did not have symptoms, for at least 15 minutes total;
• Provided care for someone who has COVID-19;
• Was a household contact of someone who has COVID-19;
• Had direct physical contact with someone who has COVID-19;
• Shared eating or drinking utensils with someone who has COVID-19;
• Was exposed to respiratory droplets from someone who has COVID-19 through sneezing, coughing, shouting and so on.
The department recommends creating small cohorts, which it says will minimize disruption to in-person classes and limit the spread of COVID-19 if someone in the cohort tests positive.
The vast majority of Colorado counties still operate under the state’s safer-at-home phase of social distancing, which came after the statewide stay-at-home order this spring and allowed numerous types of businesses to reopen.
The state’s recently updated framework for social distancing policy, referred to as a “dial,” indicates when counties should operate under different shades of Colorado’s safer-at-home phase as well as when they should follow stay-at-home rules or the state’s third and loosest phase, called “protect our neighbors,” which essentially allows for all activities at 50% of pre-pandemic capacity with up to 500 people in one setting.
The state public-health department’s new framework breaks the safer-at-home phase itself into three levels that counties are placed under based on local COVID-19 spread, according to the final version of the rules, which went into effect Sept. 15.
The “protect our neighbors” phase, reserved for counties with notably low coronavirus spread, is likely months away for metro Denver localities.
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