A dozen Colorado superintendents call for end to school quarantines

A teenage boy gets his temperature checked with a forehead thermometer outside a school.
Saying existing health precautions are enough to prevent the spread of COVID, some Colorado superintendents want to end the use of quarantines. (AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

The superintendents of 12 Denver metro school districts are asking state health officials to end mandatory quarantines for students who are exposed to COVID-19 at school.

“The protective health benefits for these students from quarantines have been small — and the costs to their development and academic progress have been great,” says a letter sent to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Monday.

The letter was signed by the superintendents of Jeffco Public Schools, Aurora Public Schools, Douglas County School District, Cherry Creek School District, Westminster Public Schools, Mapleton School District, Adams 12 Five Star Schools, 27J Schools in Brighton, Englewood Schools, Littleton Public Schools, Elizabeth School District, and Platte Canyon School District. 

Denver Public Schools and several smaller metro area districts did not sign the letter. 

At a press conference Thursday, State Epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy said public health officials are “exploring options to decrease the burden of quarantine.”

“We do realize that it’s disruptive to education,” she said. “But there is a balance here. We know these disease control strategies we’re using, isolation and quarantine, are really important and effective at controlling transmission. Unfortunately we are also at a place where we are seeing increased disease transmission among kids.” 

But the Tri-County Health Department, which oversees public health in three metro-area counties, said in a statement to Chalkbeat that what the superintendents are proposing “is a reasonable approach that deserves strong consideration.”

COVID-19 cases are trending upward in Colorado, with the biggest upticks occurring among middle and high school-aged children, Herlihy said earlier this week. COVID outbreaks at schools are also on the rise, she said. 

Herlihy did not speculate why cases are rising among teens. The superintendents also sent the letter to Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, who said at a press conference Tuesday he believes social activities are a more likely cause for the teen uptick than exposure at school, though he did not provide evidence.

COVID-19 cases among Colorado teenagers are trending upward. (Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment)

Polis has been an advocate for in-person learning throughout the pandemic and previously loosened quarantine guidance when school officials said it was too onerous. In response to questions Tuesday about whether he would move schools to remote learning due to rising cases, Polis said he doesn’t expect to change school safety guidance.

“We just have a few more weeks of school this year,” he said. “They’ll finish out the year with the kinds of precautions they’ve had in place to avoid major outbreaks.” 

In their letter, the superintendents said rates of COVID transmission in schools are low. As evidence, they cited data from 13 school districts that tracked the number of students in quarantine each week as well as the number of quarantined students who tested positive.

The data shows 59 quarantined students across the 13 districts tested positive for coronavirus since January. That’s less than 0.2% of quarantined students, the superintendents argued. The total number of students in quarantine in the 13 districts varied week to week, with the highest number being more than 3,000 quarantined students per week.

Not all people who quarantine get tested for COVID. And not all of the superintendents from the 13 districts that participated in the data tracking signed the letter.

The superintendents who signed the letter urged state officials to follow the lead of other states that have jettisoned quarantine if students were wearing masks when the exposure occurred. They argued that continued mask wearing, home isolation for students or staff who test positive for COVID, and directives for people with symptoms to stay home as well would be enough to maintain low levels of COVID transmission within schools.

“If similar standards are quickly adopted here, we can give tens of thousands of students the opportunity to finish the school year with consistency, predictability, and focus that they’ll otherwise lose out on as they get on and off the quarantine carousel,” they said.

Dr. John Douglas, the executive director of the Tri-County Health Department, which oversees school districts in Adams, Arapahoe, and Douglas counties, said in a statement that while it’s difficult to document the source of new COVID-19 infections, his department finds the low transmission rates in schools to be “reassuring.”

“Although we are concerned about rising rates of infection in school-aged children across the metro area and the state over the past few weeks, we feel that the superintendents have raised an important issue,” Douglas said.

Colorado quarantine guidance calls for students who were in close contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19 to quarantine at home. Close contact means a student was within 6 feet of a sick person for 15 minutes or more, even while wearing masks.

State guidance says most people can exit quarantine after 10 days. People who test negative for COVID-19 five days after their exposure can exit quarantine after seven days.

Chalkbeat Colorado bureau chief Erica Meltzer and reporter Yesenia Robles contributed to this story.

This story has been updated with comments from State Epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy.

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