Colorado schools open doors amid record COVID surge

Four students sit in a classroom. Gabriela Kobak, a sophomore, listens to another student during a discussion between student council officers and members at Northfield High School about the recent conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd in Denver, Colorado, on Wednesday, April 21, 2021.
School leaders across Colorado hope two years of experience will keep doors open through the omicron surge. (Eli Imadali for Chalkbeat)

Most Colorado school districts are bringing students back to the classroom this week as scheduled, even as the state reports a record number of COVID cases. They’re also bracing for staffing shortages and asking families to be flexible, patient, and prepared. 

On Monday, at least three Denver schools — Northfield High School, Lake Middle School and Denver Montessori Junior/Senior High School — had announced temporary shifts to remote learning this week as staff members called in sick, and district officials said some classes and grades will also be remote this week. By Tuesday afternoon, the list had grown to 16 schools.

But those will be the exception, not the norm, said Denver Superintendent Alex Marrero.

“What we do in person cannot be replaced, and we have worked incredibly hard to remain in person, and we have been successful,” he said. “The omicron variant presents new challenges. … We do know that sporadic shifts to remote learning will happen, but it will not be a systemwide closure. 

“This is not March 2020.”

School leaders around the state said they now have nearly two years of experience operating schools amid a pandemic that they can apply to the current surge, which is breaking all previous records in terms of cases and test positivity, an indication of how widely the virus is circulating. The spike in cases — Colorado averaged more than 7,200 cases a day over the last week — has not led school districts to delay the start of the spring semester, which begins Tuesday for many districts.

​​“We’re going to stay the course and continue to take the virus seriously,” said Matt Jenkins, a spokesman for the Montrose School District in western Colorado, which doesn’t currently have any unexpected staff absences. 

But reflecting Colorado’s system of local control, in which the state provides guidance but school districts largely chart their own course, different communities are taking different approaches, with some encouraging better-quality masks and tightening quarantine rules and others dispensing with quarantine in hopes of keeping more people in the classroom. 

The 6,200-student Montrose district signed up in December for the state’s school-based rapid testing program and continues to encourage masks and vaccination, but doesn’t require them. 

Denver, in contrast, doesn’t participate in the state testing program but does require masks for everyone and vaccines for staff. Aurora, Westminster, and Sheridan, all districts that serve diverse working-class communities, also require staff to be vaccinated. 

Many Colorado school districts — including Douglas County, Cherry Creek, and Westminster in the metro area, Mesa County on the Western Slope, and Eagle County Schools in Colorado’s ski country — are taking advantage of new federal guidance that allows people who are vaccinated to return to work after five days if they’re asymptomatic, as well as shortening quarantine for exposed people.

Denver also adopted shorter quarantines in guidance released internally late Monday and publicly on Tuesday afternoon. Rob Gould, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the teachers union, said shorter quarantines are acceptable, as long as nobody feels pressured to return to work when they’re still sick. He’d feel more comfortable, though, if the district also asked for a negative test before asking teachers to return to work early.

“What we don’t want is someone to come back too early and infect others and cause more cases and more closures,” he said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, last updated Dec. 29, still calls for people in school settings to isolate for 10 days after the onset of symptoms or a positive test. However, Colorado’s state health department quickly adopted the five-day guidance, and many school districts have followed suit. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said Tuesday that it is seeking clarification from the CDC and hopes to know more soon.

Mesa County District 51 Assistant Superintendent Brian Hill said that as in the fall, he expects continued staffing shortages this winter, but he hopes a switch to five-day quarantines for exposed staff and students will ease the impact.

“We’ve actually adjusted our protocols … to match what [the CDC] has,” he said. “Whether or not that helps the staff and students return earlier or not, we’ll see.”

The 21,000-student Mesa County Valley School District 51, based in Grand Junction, has kept school buildings open since the fall of 2020 and plans to continue that effort amid the omicron wave, Hill said.

“It’s always a concern when there’s a new variant,” he said. “We were the first to have the delta variant in the state last spring … We had to make some adjustments there, but we’re hoping omicron won’t [have] as big of an impact as delta.”

As before winter break, masks for students and staff are highly encouraged but optional, Hill said. Exceptions include when there’s a COVID case in an elementary school classroom or a test-positivity rate above 2% in a particular school. Those situations trigger a 14-day mask requirement. 

In Larimer County in northern Colorado, the Poudre, Thompson, and Estes Park school districts are sticking with a 10-day isolation period before people who test positive can return to school. They are shortening the quarantine period to five days for people who’ve had close contact with a COVID-positive individual. However, people who previously had COVID and those who were vaccinated more than six months ago but have not received a booster shot will no longer be excused from quarantines — a response to the highly contagious omicron variant sickening more vaccinated people.

Poudre district spokeswoman Madeline Noblett said the new quarantine rules could mean increased staff absences in the coming weeks, but that staff absences reported for Tuesday’s return have not reached a concerning level. She said as part of the district’s effort to recruit and retain staff, especially classroom aides, bus drivers, custodians, and food service workers, the district began giving those employees a $300 monthly incentive payment in December, with plans to continue the payments through May.

Like many districts, Poudre now recommends KN95 masks for students and staff. The district has a limited stock of KN95 masks that will go to staff this semester.

In more conservative El Paso County, the local public health department no longer requires close contacts in school settings to quarantine, unless they live in the same household as someone who tests positive. While health officials there continue to encourage quarantine, some districts, such as the 9,600-student Widefield district, don’t plan to ask students to quarantine anymore, whether they are or aren’t wearing a mask.  

Many districts are encouraging students and staff to get tested, but it doesn’t appear that any Colorado district is requiring that students test negative to come to school. The surge driven by the omicron variant has strained the state’s testing capacity, with long waits at many testing sites and delays in shipping rapid tests to households. 

Colorado school leaders say they expect an impact from the high number of cases. 

In a letter to Douglas County families just before New Year’s, Superintendent Corey Wise told parents to expect more sick staff having to isolate until they recover, with cascading effects on school services, including changes to remote learning and cancelation of bus routes, sports, and before- and after-school programs.

“Please be prepared and ready for transitions as a result of positive COVID cases,” Wise wrote.

A district spokeswoman said the district has substitutes available for nearly all vacancies this week and is monitoring the situation.

The 67,000-student Douglas County district, southeast of Denver, used federal relief money to purchase 3,750 air purifiers that it hopes will limit spread in classrooms. Under the direction of a newly elected school board, masks are now optional in the district.

Other districts sounded more optimistic notes, with Westminster touting its vaccine mandate for staff and “a strong contract tracing program that we believe keeps our schools safe.” A spokesperson for Westminster schools said that 30 people called in sick Monday, roughly 3% of staff. Principals are preparing for more absences but hope to cover them with existing staff.

Colorado Springs 11 District spokeswoman Devra Ashby said the district will reopen schools with masks optional for students and staff, but said the school board may discuss the issue during its Wednesday afternoon work session. The 24,000-student district began the year without a mask mandate, instituted one in September, and lifted it Dec. 13. 

Ashby said some parents have called asking to switch their children to remote learning because they’re fearful about COVID infections. While the district does have two online schools, one for K-8 and one for grades 6-12, she said district officials can’t accommodate flipping back and forth. 

To help with in-person staff shortages, Ashby said central office staff are prepared to cover classrooms in the event of teacher absences. She said those ready to be deployed as emergency subs include everyone from facilities workers to video production staff. 

“It’s not optimal obviously,” she said. “We’re doing everything possible to keep our kids in schools.” 

Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said teachers already experienced a challenging fall semester, and it doesn’t look like things are going to get easier. 

Despite the worry and stress, “the unifying thing that everyone agrees on is we want in-person learning,” she said. “If we want to stay in-person learning, we need to do those mitigation measures, and we need to do them with fidelity. 

“There are things the state can do, but we also need that community commitment that we’re going to do everything we can to keep our schools safe.”

Chalkbeat reporters Jason Gonzales and Yesenia Robles contributed to this report.

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