Colorado education leaders and public health officials believe they can successfully reopen schools to in-person learning for the spring semester by expanding rapid COVID-19 testing, prioritizing teachers to be vaccinated and implementing other prevention strategies to create a safe classroom environment.
On Tuesday, Gov. Jared Polis’ back-to-school task force released a report outlining steps the state will take to support districts as they welcome students back to classrooms — some beginning next month. A group of seven Denver-area superintendents and the Metro Denver Partnership for Health also unveiled new guidance they will follow to help ensure a return to in-person learning.
Layered safety measures are the keys to creating “one of the safest working environments in the state,” Polis said.
They won’t, however, solve issues like staffing shortages, which many superintendents say made face-to-face schooling logistically impossible in the fall. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently revised its guidelines to enable quarantined students and educators to be readmitted to school after seven days if they produce a negative COVID-19 test result and do not have symptoms.
That will help operationally, the superintendents said, but they stressed it’s incumbent upon everyone to drive community spread of the virus down to most safely and effectively reopen schools.
“While I’m appreciative of revised quarantine standards that I think will give us greater flexibility, while I look forward to the vaccine coming forward and being something that can serve our educators and inoculate them against this virus, what I know and continue to believe is that all those things will give us some incremental benefit in our ability to remain in-person,” said Chris Gdowski, superintendent of Adams 12 Five Star Schools. “If we remain at 1,100 cases per 100,000 in Adams County — as we did yesterday — in January our goal of having consistent, productive in-person schooling will no longer be viable.”
According to experts with the Metro Denver Partnership for Health, schools can and should be open for in-person learning next spring, especially for the youngest students who appear to be less susceptible to COVID-19 and do not play a significant role in spreading it.
Local data shows that transmission of the virus within school buildings was low even when community spread was high, said Dr. Bill Burman, executive director of Denver Public Health and co-chair of the Metro Denver Partnership for Health.
If COVID-19 is rampant in a community, it will inevitably make its way into schools, but schools do not seem to be a vector for the disease, he said.
“This concept of what we call layered protection works,” he said, citing mitigation measures like mask wearing, hand hygiene and social distancing. “Those aren’t sexy, but they work really well to prevent transmission.”
Since Colorado updated its color-coded COVID-19 dial, the state now recommends in-person learning take place unless a county is at Level Purple, the equivalent of a stay-at-home order. At Level Red, the second-highest risk level and where much of the Front Range currently is at, Polis said schools should prioritize in-person learning for preschool through fifth grade, and consider hybrid or remote learning for middle and high school students.
The state also now suggests suspending extracurricular activities to avoid mixing cohorts outside of school until in-person learning is available at all grade levels.
Polis did not set a firm timeline for when classes should resume in-person after most reverted to online education in the fall; however, many districts are planning to phase in students by grade starting with elementary.
Denver Public Schools, for example, expects to welcome all students back for some form of face-to-face education by Feb. 1. Cherry Creek School District announced Tuesday that elementary students would start attending full-time, in-person classes Jan. 11, the same day middle and high schoolers begin a hybrid schedule of two days per week in person.
An empty classroom at the DPS Emily Griffith campus in Denver on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020.
More rapid testing
Expanding access to COVID-19 tests, especially those that offer results within 36 to 72 hours, is vital to maintaining in-person learning, educators said. Many districts already offered free testing to teachers and other staff members through COVIDCheck Colorado, but that will also now be available to students, said company chairman Mike Johnston.
COVIDCheck also plans to expand into surveillance testing, meaning nurses can regularly test students on campus using saliva samples and receive results within 24 hours.
“We think this capacity enables the districts be able to open and open in the safest possible way to keep an eye on both staff prevalence (of COVID) as well as student prevalence,” Johnston said.
Rapid testing also will enable students and staff to return from quarantine more quickly. According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, quarantined individuals may return to school after 10 days, down from 14, or after seven days if they test negative for the virus after day five and do not experience symptoms.
To minimize disruptions to in-person learning, the state health department also approved schools to use what it calls “targeted contact identification” to determine who must quarantine when a positive case of COVID-19 pops up. The rules dictate only close contacts, or those who were within 6 feet of an infected person for 15 minutes or more, must quarantine instead of entire cohorts of students and staff.
Polis said Tuesday that the state will support districts with additional resources for contact tracing, testing and personal protection equipment.
Despite encouraging data that leaders said give them confidence schools can safely reopen, many challenges remain.
Corey Wise, interim superintendent of Douglas County School District, said staffing shortages will continue to hinder operations and called on community members to apply to be bus drivers, substitute teachers and educational assistants.
Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn emphasized the need for financial support to offset declining enrollment and new district investments related to COVID-19. And as the first doses of Pfizer’s vaccine were administered this week, the superintendents called on Polis to move teachers and support staff to the front of the line to receive it.
Currently, school staff are listed in Phase 2 of Colorado’s vaccine rollout planning, meaning the earliest they would receive access would be in the spring. Wise said that’s not soon enough.
“We really need to advocate for our staff — our school staff, our bus drivers, our educational assistants — to be able to provide that education in person,” he said. “If we can move our teachers and school staff up a tier and get those vaccinations earlier, that’s going to be huge and a game-changer, not only for education, but also for our society and community.”
This content was originally published here.