School districts in the Denver metro area have responded differently to confirmed COVID-19 cases so far this school year, underscoring the discretion individual districts have in applying state and …
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School districts in the Denver metro area have responded differently to confirmed COVID-19 cases so far this school year, underscoring the discretion individual districts have in applying state and local guidance, and how large or small some schools' interruptions will be.
One week into the school year in Cherry Creek and Douglas County school districts, four cases had been publicly reported in Cherry Creek schools along with one in a Douglas County elementary. The year began Aug. 17 in those districts.
Ten students and 10 staff members who had come in close contact with cases in Cherry Creek — a Grandview High School student and one staff member at Belleview Elementary School — were told to quarantine.
On the other hand, in response to one case, sixth-grade students and teachers at Sand Creek Elementary School in Douglas County were broadly told to quarantine.
Then, as of Aug. 27, a student at Cherry Hills Village Elementary School in the Cherry Creek district exhibited major symptoms after exposure to a positive case. This time, a third-grade class of 20 students and its teacher were told to quarantine.
The total number of students told to quarantine soon grew into the hundreds across numerous schools.
“We do not make decisions about how to handle COVID cases in a vacuum,” said Abbe Smith, spokeswoman for Cherry Creek schools. “We work very closely with Tri-County Health Department to investigate the unique factors of each confirmed cases with a student or staff member.”
Tri-County Health's territory includes both the Cherry Creek and Douglas County schools.
The district also makes decisions based on Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment guidelines, Smith added.
The state public-health department's guidelines for when one student is confirmed to have COVID-19 say a “class (or) cohort stays home for a 14-day quarantine,” under the July 30 guidance for responding to cases in schools.
When one teacher or staff member is confirmed as infected, all “close contacts (students, teachers, and staff) must quarantine” and the “classroom (or) cohort must quarantine if the teacher has a confirmed case,” the guidance says.
An August document labeled “COVID cohort exclusion tool” provided by the state public-health department says if a student or staffer tests positive and was in class within 48 hours prior to their test or start of symptoms, a school should “dismiss classmates, (the) cohort and other in-school contacts.”
Public health officials are still learning about COVID-19 transmission in classrooms and what the risk is for prolonged contact — an hour-long class period or more — even at distances of greater than 6 feet, the state public-health department said in a statement to Colorado Community Media.
“There currently is no definitive evidence that a certain amount of time spent in close contact or a certain distance from someone who is positive reduces risk of transmission to zero,” the department said. “Given the unique setting of schools, with prolonged exposures throughout the day and variable ability to physically distance students and teachers, our guidance takes a conservative approach and recommends quarantining all individuals in a class or cohort with a positive case.”
But the department added that the guidance is “designed to provide school districts and our local partners with recommendations that can be applied to a number of different situations. Ultimately, procedures are determined locally.”
Asked why the Douglas County elementary school implemented a broad quarantine while the first couple Cherry Creek schools only quarantined individuals, Tri-County Health Department — the health agency for Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties — said it is unable to discuss specific details.
“Each investigation takes into account individual factors of each situation,” said Ashley Richter, Tri-County's communicable disease epidemiology manager. She added: “The schools apply our (and) CDPHE guidance from the school document in order to manage the individual situations at the school, as they are the experts and have firsthand knowledge of setups and movement within the school.”
Said Smith, Cherry Creek's spokeswoman: “We do not base our decisions on actions that other school districts or states have taken.”
The state's July 30 guidance also says schools should anticipate “grade-wide or school-wide dismissal for several days” while contact-tracing is ongoing. Contact-tracing is a term for public health workers notifying people that they may have been exposed to someone with COVID-19.
Different grade levels — and for middle and high schools, different cohorts, or groups within those grades — attended school in person on different days in Cherry Creek the week of Aug. 17 as part of a “phase-in” week meant to give students time to adjust to new routines — so it appears each student would only have attended school one day that week, according to the district's schedule, possibly giving officials time to identify contacts without dismissals.
In reopening in-person class, Cherry Creek district opted for a “blended” plan for grades six through 12 that puts half of students in school Tuesdays and Wednesdays, with the other half attending Thursday and Friday. Those are the cohorts for those grades.
Sixth-grade students and teachers at Sand Creek Elementary in Highlands Ranch were told to quarantine after someone in the group tested positive, the Douglas County School District said in late August.
The district was notified Aug. 22 that someone had tested positive, said Paula Hans, a spokesperson with the district. “They will transition to virtual learning for two weeks and then return on or after Sept. 8,” she said Aug. 24.
Students at the school are split into two cohorts, with half the students attending school in person Monday and Wednesday and the other half attending Tuesday and Thursday. All students have online learning on Fridays. That's why some students will return from quarantine Sept. 8 and the rest Sept. 9.
The school district did not specify if it was a student or teacher who tested positive.
Tri-County Health, which the district is following for its quarantine protocol, asks people to quarantine if they have been within 6 feet of, or have spent 15 minutes or more, with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.
In Cherry Creek, the Grandview High student's COVID-19 case was announced in an Aug. 24 letter from the district to the school community. Eight students were told to quarantine after contact-tracing efforts, Smith said.
Grandview sits in the southeast Aurora and Centennial area.
“A public health investigation showed that a very limited number of students were in close contact, within 6 feet for 15 minutes or longer, with that student, who was at school on Thursday, August 20,” the letter says.
One staff member at Belleview Elementary in Greenwood Village tested positive, an Aug. 21 letter says. Five other staff members at Belleview Elementary and five staff members at the adjacent Campus Middle School came in close contact with the Belleview staff member, according to Smith.
Two students at Campus came in close contact with the staff member, and none did at Belleview, according to Smith.
One staff member tested positive from the district's Options Homeschool Program, located at Cherry Creek's East Fremont Avenue building near South Jordan Road in central Centennial, according to an Aug. 19 letter. Two staff members were told to quarantine, and no students were impacted, Smith said.
Another case — a staff member for the day care program at Pine Ridge Elementary School — was last in the building on Aug. 14, and there was not any contact between that staff member and the general Pine Ridge student population, according to an Aug. 19 letter. That school sits in far southeast Aurora near the E-470 tollway.
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