Roadmap to return Colorado students to school calls for more testing, contact tracing

Girl wearing a mask works on her laptop at a learning center.

Asserting that schools have proved themselves to be safe, Gov. Jared Polis and a group of public health and education leaders laid out a roadmap Tuesday for getting children back to the classroom as soon as possible in 2021. But the report is short on details about how the state will help schools overcome logistical challenges.

These same leaders and a separate group of superintendents said in separate press conferences Tuesday that reducing community rates of COVID will make it much easier to offer consistent in-person school.

“We hope that our communities stand up and continue to do their work, because the less spread there is in communities, the safer going back to school is,” Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes said at the governor’s press conference.

The recommendations came from a task force that convened right before Thanksgiving. They include relaxed quarantine rules, increased testing for students and school staff, quicker test results, and better contact tracing, as well as the same protocols that schools have been following all fall: symptom screening, masks, handwashing, and improved ventilation. 

At a press conference, Polis said ventilation could be “as simple as a window being open,” something some teachers say is impossible in their classrooms.

“We now know that schools are relatively low-risk environments for kids and educators,” Polis said. “They can be a safe place when safety measures are taken and layered on one another.”

The report said the state should support school districts in improving their testing and contact tracing capacity, but said districts should work with their local public health departments before reaching out to the state. COVIDCheck Colorado is also working to expand testing to teachers and students, as well as opening new community testing sites. 

“The administration will continue to explore how to combine all available resources — including prioritizing current resources, state emergency funds, and federal resources — to help increase capacity in both of these areas,” Conor Cahill, a spokesman for the governor said.

At their press conference, a group of superintendents said they are grateful for the governor’s support, but getting back to school and staying there will require reducing the overall level of COVID in the community.

“Keeping students in school is not a safety issue, but an operational one,” said Brian Ewert, superintendent of the south suburban Littleton district. “All of our plans to reopen are really dependent on our community’s ability to control spread.”

Earlier in the year, public health experts nationally and in Colorado said that schools should be cautious about opening when test positivity gets above 5 to 7% and when cases get above 100 per 100,000 people in two-week period. The experience through the fall was that transmission in schools remained low even as case rates and test positivity rose much higher, said Dr. Bill Burman, director of Denver Public Health. Local public health officials have revised their guidance, now calling reopening schools “a public health priority.”

But when rates of community transmission rose above 500 to 700 cases per 100,000, as they have been in much of Colorado since early November, quarantines in response to positive cases became so frequent that schools didn’t have enough adults to operate safely, the group said. 

“At a certain point, when you have so many quarantines, you shift from a place where your primary focus is education to where your primary focus is child supervision to where you can no longer do that safely,” said Chris Gdowski, superintendent of the Adams 12 Five Star Schools district in the northwest Denver suburbs. 

Colorado schools have toggled between in-person and remote learning for much of the fall. Some school districts offered as many as 13 weeks of in-person school, while some districts, most notably Denver Public Schools, have had very limited in-person offerings. During the fall, cases surged, with test positivity above 12% statewide and an average of 4,000 cases a day by mid-November. By Thanksgiving, just three of the state’s largest 30 school districts, which collectively serve more than 80% of all students, were offering in-person learning for all grade levels

Outbreaks at K-12 schools nearly doubled in November, and the number of outbreaks affecting 10 or more students also increased, though the typical school outbreaks remained small, between three and five people. 

Throughout this surge, Polis insisted that schools were safe and called on all school districts to remain open, at least for elementary students. Superintendents responded by saying they needed clearer guidance and more support from the state to do that.

The task force was convened in response to the crisis. The members included parents, teachers, union leaders, superintendents, and public health experts. 

“Families have said we’ve got to find the safest way but the best way to have as many kids in school as possible,” said Rebecca Holmes, president and CEO of Colorado Education Initiative and a co-chair of the working group. “I know I’ve watched my own kids struggle with remote learning despite the heroic behaviors of their teachers and their schools.”

Holmes said she hopes the report gives schools confidence to call for “reciprocal accountability” from community members, including not traveling over the holiday break and quarantining rather than sending their children immediately back to school if they do.

The recommendations, laid out in an 11-page report, include:

  • Better communication about plans and research on the safety of in-person school.
  • Prioritizing learning by discontinuing extracurricular and recreational activities when community rates are high and school is online.
  • Prioritizing access to in-person school for vulnerable students who are not well served online.
  • Making data on COVID cases in school easily accessible online.
  • Following safety protocols such as mask wearing, symptom screening, improved ventilation, and the use of cohorts, or distinct groups of students and staff who only interact with each other.
  • Hiring more staff so that schools can manage quarantines without closing.
  • Expanded testing for school staff and students, including exploring the possibility of rapid, on-demand testing for people who develop symptoms while at school and looking at surveillance testing in secondary schools.

Tom Gonzales, director of the Larimer County Public Health Department, served on the task force and said that ideally he would test all teachers twice a week. Finding asymptomatic cases early would make contact tracing easier, allow fewer people to quarantine, and reduce the risk of transmission in schools. He’s also looking to expand his team of nine contact tracers who work with the county’s three school districts as well as charter and private schools.

“We’re putting our most skilled contact tracers on the school cases,” he said.

Across the state, contact tracing capacity has been strained by the surge in cases, and many school districts have to do their own.

Deirdre Pilch, superintendent of the Greeley-Evans school district, also served on the task force. She said she underestimated the trust and access issues that would make some families avoid testing earlier in the fall. Providing more testing through schools would ease the burden on teachers, students, and families, she said, and help build trust.

“A big part of being open and staying open is having testing ability,” she said. “You need to be able to walk in somewhere and get tested for free. And I hope there is more awareness that that is not available in every community.”

Polis also pledged to continue to provide medical-grade KN95 masks to schools that want them, as well as surgical masks, which are less protective but easier to talk in. So far, the state has provided 2.4 million medical-grade masks to Colorado schools.

Even before the task force convened, Polis announced changes to the state’s quarantine guidelines to allow schools to send home only people identified as close contacts, rather than entire classrooms. Now, the state will also allow people to get out of quarantine after seven days if they have a negative test and no symptoms, in alignment with new CDC recommendations. 

The superintendents said these changes would help keep more students and staff in school, but quarantines will continue to be very disruptive if cases remain high. 

Pilch, who spoke to Chalkbeat in a separate interview, said she does worry about the safety of school when case rates are elevated. In November, the average age of people entering the hospital in surrounding Weld County — 52 years old — was very close to the average age of her staff, and her district, like many, was struggling to stay on top of all the new cases.

“Our secretaries were covering classes; our district administrators were covering classes,” she said. “Operationally we could not maintain, and we were very afraid of who and how many could get sick.”

Now, she’s working hard to bring students back to school in January, but she’s still not sure how she’ll keep her schools staffed if case rates are high.

“I have most of the tools I need to be open,” she said. “What I don’t have is enough substitute teachers. I don’t have enough internet access when I have to quarantine or when I have to do hybrid.”

Superintendents said parents should expect school districts to return on different timelines based not just on case rates but also on internal factors including pre-pandemic staffing levels that give districts more or less ability to weather quarantines.

The superintendents also said they need more money from the state to cover the increased costs of keeping schools safe — Polis provided an extra $510 million in federal coronavirus relief to K-12 schools, but it has to be spent by the end of the year — and called for school staff to move up in the state’s vaccine priority list. Teachers are in the second tier behind frontline health care workers and nursing home residents, but the second tier also includes many other groups. 

The superintendents had one more request of the community.

“Parents, apply to be substitute teachers,” said Douglas County School District Interim Superintendent Corey Wise. “Apply to be bus drivers. Apply to be classroom assistants.”

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