Fearing a Christmas surge, Jeffco Public Schools plans remote start with phased return

A sticker urging social distancing was placed in a school building hallway
The return of middle and high school students in Jeffco Public Schools will depend on COVID conditions. (Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat)

Fearing a possible post-holiday COVID surge, Jeffco Public Schools plans to start January with most students in remote learning before opening school buildings later in the month.

The state’s second-largest school district said in an email Friday that it hopes to bring elementary students back to school buildings on Jan. 19 for the rest of the school year. Secondary students would return to school buildings on a hybrid schedule if the county moves to orange, a lower level of COVID safety restrictions, or if cases are going down steadily under the current level red, officials said. The earliest that would happen would be Feb. 1.

But bringing students back too early could end in almost immediate quarantines and disruptions if virus levels are high, officials said.

“While we are fully committed to return to in-person learning, there are serious concerns about a potential surge in the spread of the virus following the winter break,” the email said. “Jefferson County Public Health has advised us to provide for a 14-day incubation period prior to opening our schools for in-person instruction to avoid virus spread which could lead to immediate quarantines.”

Nearly all Jeffco Public Schools have been learning remotely since the Thanksgiving break

Statewide, new cases and test positivity have declined since the peak in late November after public health officials implemented new restrictions but remain at what the state epidemiologist called a “high plateau.” Jefferson County reports better trends than the state average but remains at level red, the second highest level of restrictions. 

Colorado seems to have avoided a post-Thanksgiving surge such as other states experienced, but officials remain concerned that behavior over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays could reverse these initial gains. 

The small number of students who have continued to report to school buildings in December — preschool students, students with significant disabilities, and some high school students in career and technical programs — will continue in-person learning from Jan. 6, the district said.

Elementary students will return to school Jan. 19 unless the county is at the highest level of restricts on the state dial, which would be triggered by hospitals becoming overwhelmed. 

But the return of secondary students will depend on certain public health conditions being met, the district said. There are a number of reasons for that. Secondary students seem to contract the virus at higher rates than younger students, and secondary schedules make the creation of strict cohorts very difficult. 

Secondary students will return to buildings when the county sees consistently improving COVID trends and if elementary schools remain operationally stable, the email said. 

“We know that our plan for January will not make everyone happy,” the email said. “Some want schools to return to 100% in-person learning immediately, others want us to wait even longer than our plan. … We believe what we have put forward here is the most reasonable, safe, and sustainable way to get our students and staff back to in-person learning.”

The email said the district’s intent is to reduce instability and keep students in school once they’re brought back. District officials said implementing the plan will depend on “reducing the spread of COVID-19 in our community and maintaining our staffing levels both within schools and across district operations.” 

Denver Public Schools and Cherry Creek School District have said they plan to bring back students earlier, on Jan. 11, but those plans could change based on public health indicators. Other metro area school districts are taking Jeffco’s approach and building in a cushion to watch post-holiday trends. 

Most of the state’s large districts are currently entirely remote, with many school leaders citing major operational challenges due to quarantines. To encourage districts to open their buildings, the state public health department made several changes to the quarantine rules. However, superintendents have said that when case rates are above 500 per 100,000 people over a two-week period, quarantines are so frequent that it’s difficult to run their schools even with relaxed guidelines.

District officials said they need more support from the state, including giving teachers and school staff higher priority for the vaccine, expanding testing opportunities, providing more funding, and waiving licensing requirements for substitute teachers. 

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