Gunnison school district the first in Colorado to close in effort to stop coronavirus spread

UPDATE: Eagle County Schools and Aspen Public Schools announced Friday that they would also close for several weeks.

The Gunnison school district announced Thursday it is closing all schools for two weeks starting Friday to help stop the spread of the new coronavirus in the region. It is the first school district in the state to shut down entirely.

The Gunnison Watershed School District serves about 2,100 students. The district closure includes seven schools in Gunnison, Crested Butte, and Marble, including one charter school.

“In an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19 in our community, Gunnison Watershed School District will suspend all classes starting tomorrow,” the announcement says.

At this point, the Gunnison district plans to resume classes on March 30, it says. Learning will continue during the closure, the announcement says. It directs families to watch for communication from their children’s schools “about online and alternative instruction.”

“While we do not yet have confirmed cases within our school community, we are taking preventive measures to reduce the spread of this illness by practicing social distancing,” the announcement says, noting that elderly and immunocompromised people are most at risk.

The announcement cites concern about community spread of the virus and the ability of rural health care systems to handle a surge of cases.

“Our resort community is a destination for travelers from around the world,” it says.

State public health officials consider Colorado’s High Country, with its many resort communities, a “hot spot” for the new coronavirus. Many of the cases in Pitkin County, home to Aspen, trace back to a single Australian visitor.

As of Thursday afternoon, Gunnison County had three confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. None of the three cases were in the school community, according to an announcement on the district’s website.

Other mountain counties, including Eagle and Pitkin, had more than triple that number. But Eagle County Schools and Aspen Public Schools remain open, though they canceled sporting events and other gatherings.

“While Pitkin County has been identified as having a number of presumptive positive COVID-19 cases, we want to be cautious about heightening concern through communications and treating this like an emergency before it is one,” interim Superintendent Tom Heald wrote in a letter to parents Wednesday. However, Aspen schools were closed to students Thursday and Friday due to previously scheduled parent-teacher conferences.

Eagle County Schools have suspended their attendance policy and will not penalize any families that choose to keep their children home.

Gunnison schools have spring break next week. The announcement says “the prevalence of travel” during spring break “increases our community’s exposure to the virus.”

Thursday saw a string of regional and statewide school closures around the country, including a long list of Colorado school districts extending their spring breaks. Gunnison’s decision put it ahead of the rest of the state, though.

Rather than order a statewide school shutdown, Gov. Jared Polis issued rules Wednesday that schools should close for 72 hours if they have a confirmed case among a student or staff member. If there are multiple cases in a single school or across a district, the rules call for closure of at least 14 days.

Colorado bureau chief Erica Meltzer contributed to this report.