Denver, Jeffco districts won’t do public notifications of new coronavirus cases

As the number of cases grows, Colorado’s largest school districts say they will not do public notifications if a member of a school community tests positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

However, if staff members working in a role that includes public contact, such as meal distribution, were to test positive, other team members would be notified, and the site would likely be changed, officials said.

For many students and staff members, March 13 was the last day they had close contact with each other. This Friday would represent two weeks from that point. However, some schools were open more recently for students to retrieve belongings or for staff to prepare for remote learning. School custodians continue to clean buildings, and workers and volunteers continue to distribute meals.

At the same time, testing capacity in Colorado remains limited, and public health authorities believe there are thousands of cases in the community, including in places where there are very few or no reported cases. As of Tuesday afternoon, Colorado has 912 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and 11 people have died from the disease. Public health officials are investigating outbreaks at seven residential facilities.

Local public health departments are responsible for following up with people who had close contact with a person with a diagnosis.

Nationally, other large districts have also said they will not continue to do public notifications. The decisions reflect the shifting course of the epidemic as confirmed cases go from dozens to hundreds to thousands and raise questions about the responsibilities of school districts. In New York, the district stopped confirming cases last week, even as teachers were required to return to school buildings for in-person trainings. This week, a Brooklyn principal became the first known public school employee to die of the disease. In Chicago, officials said they would stop doing notifications at the end of the month, once schools had been closed for two weeks.

Jeffco Public Schools announced this week that it would no longer announce every confirmed case of the novel coronavirus tied to its schools.

The district had announced last week that a person connected to Conifer High School had tested positive for coronavirus, and let families know that their children at the school may have been exposed. It also removed the school from its meal distribution list.

But now, the district says a confirmed case tied to its schools is no longer unexpected. Jefferson County Public Health officials would work to notify people who had close contact with anyone who is diagnosed with the disease, the district said, but there would not be a broader notification.

“Our assumption should be that we have all potentially been exposed in one place or another,” the district’s statement reads. “Please be assured that the Jeffco Public Schools Health Services Director will be informed by JCPH of all positive cases of COVID-19 involving those in our community, and we will continue to take all necessary actions to protect public health.”

The Denver school district has yet to publicly identify any cases among students or staff, though Denver has the highest number of cases of any county. The district, the state’s largest, had closed several schools after parents of students tested positive before announcing its districtwide closure.

District spokesperson Winna Maclaren pointed to the evidence of “significant exposure risk in the community” and the lack of a system for communicating between public health agencies and school districts while school is closed as reasons to not do specific notifications.

“Given all of these circumstances, we are no longer able to track COVID-19 cases among DPS students and staff members at this time or sending communications if there are known cases within the DPS community,” she said in an email.

However, if a staff member who has public contact were to be diagnosed, the district would follow health department guidance about shutting down the site, Maclaren said.

“We would then look at alternative sites or other ways to distribute meals, though these decisions would be on a site-by-site basis,” she said.

Similarly, Jeffco spokesperson Cameron Bell said team members who worked with the sick person would be asked to stay home for a period. Depending on the situation, a new food distribution site might be set up with new team members.

Other Colorado school districts have said in recent days that they would work with their local public health agencies to determine if a public notification was necessary if there were a confirmed case linked to their schools.