When schools debated how to reopen safely this fall, cohorting was one of the key strategies recommended.
Limiting the contact a group of students has is working well at the elementary level, but high schools have been unable or unwilling to create cohorts as envisioned by state public health officials.
The health department’s school reopening guidance doesn’t specify the optimal number of students that should constitute a cohort, instead leaving the details for districts to decide. That has led to cohort sizes as large as 1,500 at schools across Colorado — much bigger than experts anticipated, said Therese Pilonetti, institutions unit manager at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
But the guidelines also do not address how teachers fit into the cohorting model — and that’s led to unintended consequences. Since the semester began in late August, more than a half-dozen Denver-area high schools have been forced to close and move thousands of students to remote learning after just a couple people tested positive for the virus. Most cite staffing shortages as the reasons they can’t host in-person classes.
Scott Siegfried, superintendent of Cherry Creek School District, contends that conflicting guidance from the health department leads to an inordinate number of teachers being forced into quarantine. That’s what caused Cherry Creek High School to go remote for two weeks earlier this month, he said.
Westminster High School also recently shut down briefly due to quarantine-related staffing issues. Because of how the school has modified schedules this semester, two cases of COVID-19 led to 12 teachers being quarantined, per CDPHE guidance. The school could no longer host in-person learning effectively and closed Sept. 11 to 22, said Principal Kiffany Kiewiet.
On Sept. 25, one positive student case put seven staff members in quarantine. Then on Sept. 28, an additional 18 staff members followed suit after an additional couple cases were detected. The school moved an entire cohort to remote learning for two weeks — the second time in one month.
“There’s a huge shortage of substitute teachers in Colorado, so we don’t have a lot of opportunities for teachers to be in classrooms if that happens. That being said, we could have stayed in school, but it would not have been a good educational experience for our students,” Kiewiet said. “There’s no playbook for this. Every situation is unique, and we will make decisions based on what’s best for our kids and our families every time.”
The Denver Post spoke with Kiewiet and Siegfried to get a feel for the inner workings of cohorting and why it’s a challenge in secondary education.
Cohorting versus “babysitting”
Block scheduling is a common practice among middle and high schools, but even during a typical year it can be a challenge to make sure students enroll in classes that satisfy both their graduation requirements and interests, Siegfried and Kiewiet said.
Pilonetti at the health department said she hoped districts were “thinking creatively” about scheduling during this anything but typical semester.
Both Westminster High School and Cherry Creek secondary schools currently operate on hybrid schedules, meaning students are physically in school part time and supplement with virtual classes or assignments. Still, their approaches look different.
Middle and high schoolers in Cherry Creek School District are divided into A and B cohorts, which attend classes in-person two alternating full days each week. At Westminster High School, cohorts attend school five days per week, either in the mornings from 7:15 a.m. to 1:05 p.m. or in the afternoons from 1:15 p.m. to 5:40 p.m. During the break between cohorts, students can grab their free lunches as they’re coming or going and teachers clean their classrooms, Kiewiet said.
One day each week in both districts is dedicated to academic enrichment or individualized time for students and their teachers.
Siegfried said the only thing that’s changed about the in-person experience this semester is that students are required to wear masks and their classes are smaller. They still attend five to eight classes each day and move through their schedules like normal.
That’s intentional, Siegfried said, if more risky. About 3,500 ninth- through 12th-graders attend Cherry Creek High School, so when officials reported a COVID-19 outbreak among one cohort, more than 1,700 students and staff were moved to remote learning because of quarantine-related staffing issues.
But that experience isn’t reshaping how the district does cohorting, Siegfried said, even as extracurricular activities like football start up and offer more opportunities for student mingling.
“The ideas we received from CDPHE to cohort high schools, honestly, I call that babysitting,” Siegfried said. “You put 30 kids in a classroom and expect them to go through all their classes together, you are eliminating the specific classes those individual students need to meet their greatest potential.”
Instead, Cherry Creek cohorts students first by what classroom they’re in, then by which grade they’re in, and finally by which cohort day they attend school, Siegfried said. Cohort days are generally determined by alphabetical order.
Kiewiet’s team at Westminster High School “took the wheel and tweaked it” when it comes to class schedules this semester. The school’s roughly 2,300 students take a maximum of three classes per day, compared to six daily during a standard year.
Normally a computer program will design students’ schedules based on their academic needs. As Kiewiet tried to slim down class sizes, scheduling became a manual process. Administrators started by putting students together by their core class requirements and then tried to enroll the groups in similar electives so they would stay together throughout the day. Westminster High School wasn’t able to offer as many electives this year, Kiewiet said, but all classes are under 25 students.
“We have a lot of (Career and Technical Education) classes, Project Lead the Way, AVID, International Baccalaureate,” said Kiewiet, “so we had a lot of programs we needed to make sure that we kept intact while cohorting students and keeping them in as small of groups as possible.”
Are the strategies working?
Despite dozens of reported COVID-19 cases and at least one school closure, Siegfried called Cherry Creek’s cohorting model a success. He points to a new statistic the district is tracking: student incident rate of positivity, or how many students are considered active cases of COVID-19. The rate currently sits at .04% among the 44,000 kids attending in-person classes, he said.
Cherry Creek also has a dedicated, five-person contact tracing team, which is able to quickly assess positive cases and limit potential spread, he said.
The reason so many people have been quarantined is due to what Siegfried calls contradictory language in the health department guidelines. CDPHE states that when a positive case of COVID-19 is detected, the infected person’s entire class must be quarantined in addition to any people determined to have been in close contact with them. (The health department defines close contact as someone who spent more than 15 minutes within 6 feet of an infected person.)
Those two things are not the same, especially given cohorting protocols, he said.
“When I went to substitute, there were kids that sat 30 feet away from each other in a classroom and were never in close contact. I was never in close contact,” Siegfried said. “CDPHE’s guidance does not take that into consideration in our need to quarantine the entire class.”
Kiewiet said cohorting efforts at her school are working to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 despite the recent closure. While she has no qualms about the health department’s quarantine guidelines, she admits they have changed her role as principal. Instead of bouncing between classes to connect with students, she often spends the days conducting extensive interviews to do contact tracing when positive cases arise.
While neither administrator plans to change their approach to in-person learning right now, both emphasized the need to be able to pivot to remote learning when the circumstances call for it. Still, they hope in-person classes can continue and offer students some semblance of normalcy.
“The high school experience has become very, very different,” said Kiewiet. “We love our kids and we want them to have as good a high school experience as we could possibly give them, while following all the regulations and rules that were given to us.”
This content was originally published here.