Aurora sends students online as Adams County schools grapple with rise in cases

Middle school students are spaced out in a hallway with lockers, during a conversation exercise.
Even as Aurora Public Schools moves most students online, it plans to bring back small in-person groups for “newcomers” and other vulnerable students. (Rachel Ellis / The Denver Post)

Less than two weeks after bringing elementary and middle school students back to the classroom, Aurora is moving nearly all students to remote learning.

The board voted unanimously to make the switch Thursday evening, saying that they were concerned about the rising cases and how it might increase the workload in schools where staff are missing because of quarantines or exposures.

Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn had recommended that the board vote to keep students in person for at least another two weeks while the district evaluated the county’s virus mitigation efforts. But Munn admitted that if the numbers of cases don’t start dropping, it may be difficult to keep students on campus for another two weeks.

“We have nothing but bad options in front of us,” Munn said.

As the 37,000-student Aurora district returns to online learning, a spokesman said the plan is to again offer small-group in-person learning for vulnerable students. Preschool and kindergarten students will also continue learning in person, according to additional details sent to parents.

Aurora is the latest district to reassess its plans as COVID-19 cases rise around the region. The different responses reflect Colorado’s emphasis on local control and leave a patchwork of educational options for students across the state. 

Denver middle and high school students are learning from home at least through November Meanwhile, Adams 12 moved older students back online after just a few weeks in classrooms, and Adams 14 decided to stay remote through December. That leaves tens of thousands of Colorado students without access to in-person learning — for now.

The working class suburbs of Adams County have been particularly hard hit by new coronavirus cases, with some district leaders having been impacted personally. In Adams 14, board members have lost family members to COVID-19. In Aurora, Superintendent Munn is on quarantine after being exposed to a person with the virus, and the board president has said that she is experiencing symptoms and awaiting testing. The county is working on a mitigation plan to avoid returning to tighter restrictions.

Adams 12 Superintendent Chris Gdowski said he still believes schools are relatively safe, but frequent quarantines had become too disruptive. 

The 37,000-student district started the school year remotely and brought students back to the classroom on Oct. 1. In the first 20 days of October, the district enacted 75 quarantines affecting 1,161 students and 170 staff members. Many secondary teachers were already struggling to maintain learning for in-school and at-home students under the district’s hybrid schedule, and the quarantines added another complication.

“The frequency and how they affect secondary and high school educators and the quality of instruction has been the deciding factor” in moving older students to remote learning, Gdowski said.

The reaction has been mixed, he said. Many parents said they were frustrated that their children have to make yet another hard transition, and some elementary school teachers expressed concern that the district was not prioritizing their safety.

For now, elementary schools are continuing with full-time in-person learning. 

“This is not where we want to be,” Gdowski said. “It’s been a frustrating fall, a frustrating year.”

But other districts facing similar coronavirus case rates are continuing with in-person learning for all students. The 9,000-student Mapleton school district has held in-person classes since August and has no plans to change that.  

“Our processes have been working,” said Karla Allenbach, a Mapleton assistant superintendent. “The outbreaks that are happening are community-based — that’s where the primary mode of transmission is occurring. Our actual numbers in schools are significantly lower than in the community.”

Since in-person learning began, there have been 28 students and six staff members that have tested positive. Currently, 245 students and 26 staffers are quarantining. 

“We are small by design and that has helped us in this situation,” Allenbach said. “We’re not trying to deal with a 2,000-person school.”

In neighboring Westminster Public Schools, Superintendent Pam Swanson said the district is prepared to move to remote learning should it become necessary, but that for now “we are doing a good job controlling transmission in our school buildings.”  Westminster, which serves about 8,400 students, is not using a hybrid schedule, so teachers aren’t juggling quite as many groups.

Samantha Decker, a member of Tri-County Health Department’s school support team, which provides data and assistance to school districts, said that reopening decisions may take into account such factors as whether children are struggling to connect to the internet or if they have access to healthy meals. “There are so many factors and so many other benefits, so the school is going to know their community best,” Decker said.

She noted that school districts have so far avoided “massive school outbreaks.” Officials attribute that to safety measures, such as wearing masks, physical distancing, and quickly sending exposed people home. 

Still, she said it’s too early to know if school transmission is low.

“Even national data that’s out there is still a little young to really be able to say, yes, there is low transmission in schools,” Decker said.

For instance, schools and public health officials know if multiple people in one classroom test positive for COVID-19. But if a child was exposed to the virus, sent home to quarantine, and then the child’s parents or grandparents test positive, public health officials might not be able to track if that person got COVID-19 from the child. 

“That’s data that’s not very robust at this point and can be difficult to collect,” Decker said.

Aurora officials had already decided Monday to keep high school students remote through at least Nov. 13, delaying their in-person start that was to happen this week.

Munn had told the school board that part of the high school decision was based on lower confidence that the district’s health plan could keep up as cases rise.

Thursday’s decision was similar.

“We are very concerned about the community spread overwhelming our environments,” Munn said. “That is different than, I think, saying that we’re concerned that our environments aren’t safe and healthy.”

David Rubin, a professor of pediatrics and director of PolicyLab at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said school districts that take safety plans seriously have been able to operate with little disease transmission even when there are high COVID-19 rates in the community. However, when rates get high enough, it becomes harder to keep the virus at bay.

“The real question is whether you have reached enough community transmission that it is permeating your school environment,” he said. 

We don’t yet know the “outer threshold” for operating schools safely, Rubin said, but when coronavirus test positivity gets above 9% or 10%, as it has across Adams County, that’s cause for concern.

“I would argue that at that point, when you reach those outer bands, that is not a decision for individual school districts, but a decision that needs to be made at the governor’s office and the health department,” he said. “We don’t have the ability to be as nimble as we would like, and we need to take a break.”

Clarification: This article has been updated to reflect that preschool and kindergarten students will remain in person. All other elementary students will learn online.

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