Teacher COVID case in Westminster sends 109 students home

Students arrive at Skyline Vista Elementary in the Westminster district on the first day of school on August 20, 2020. (Ann Schimke)

Less than a week after students have returned to school buildings, some students are already switching to online learning because of exposure to people who’ve tested positive for COVID-19.

The Westminster Public School district got notice Friday morning that a teacher from Josephine Hodgkins Leadership Academy, a preschool through seventh grade school, tested positive for COVID-19.

The teacher had contact with students on Thursday, the first day of school. Now the district has sent home 109 sixth and seventh graders to learn remotely from home for a two-week quarantine. The school last year enrolled about 650 students.

Westminster is one of at least a half dozen school districts in Colorado that have already had to use quarantine procedures. Public health officials have said for months that they expect people with COVID to turn up at schools, given that the coronavirus is circulating widely in the community. Their goal is to limit exposure to anyone who becomes infected and to reduce the disruption to learning.

Health and state education officials have encouraged schools to use a cohort model to limit the number of students and staff that interact, but public health officials never dictated a strict limit on how many students should be part of a cohort.

In several Colorado schools, large numbers of people have been exposed, with an entire high school having to go home in one Weld County district. Earlier this week, Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes said many districts have struggled with how to create small cohorts, especially at the secondary level, where students take more classes and have more teachers. 

“We understand the feasibility issues,” she said. At the same time, she said she hopes that schools that experience closures reevaluate their plans and try to make smaller groups.

Friday afternoon, Dana Smith, a department spokesperson, said that no changes are being considered for the state guidance, however, because classroom sizes and staffing resources differ, as do educational needs.

“We’ve said from the beginning that some cohorting is better than no cohorting,” she said.

In the Westminster case, three other teachers for the same students were also told late Friday that because of “some level of exposure” they would also be sent home, according to Steve Saunders, a spokesman for the district. He said they would be working from home to support the students who are now learning remotely.

Tri-County Public Health is investigating to make sure no one else was exposed.

Although students had just come into buildings on Thursday, staff had been in buildings for several days preparing to start the school year.

Saunders said that the cohorts are working to keep the rest of the school open. Shrinking cohorts would not be possible, he said.

“In an ideal world we’d have smaller cohorts,” Saunders said. “But it’s not doable.”

Around the state, there are several other examples of large numbers of students being disrupted by confirmed COVID cases.

  • A Fort Lupton high school closed entirely after two students tested positive.
  • All of the sixth grade class of students at one Lamar school was sent home after one student tested positive. The district also suspended bus service after the bus driver tested positive.
  • At a Windsor middle school, 37 students and 11 staff members were sent home to quarantine after a student tested positive.
  • An elementary school in the Harrison school district in Colorado Springs closed Friday through Monday and an exposed classroom will be quarantined for two weeks.
  • The Burlington middle school was closed after someone tested positive.

Colleges, too, are seeing disruption just as students arrive on campuses.

  • A student tested positive at Colorado College, prompting 155 students in a dorm to be placed on quarantine.
  • CU Boulder is using designated quarantine space to isolate students. So far, 13 students have tested positive.

Tri-County public health officials, speaking about two teacher cases that surfaced before students returned, recently said that they expect to see cases as schools reopen, and would attribute them to community spread of the coronavirus outside of schools.

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