Most Denver-area schools sticking with in-person learning despite rising COVID cases

Cases of COVID-19 are on the rise in Colorado, but so far that isn’t changing the way many school districts in the metro area are conducting classes.

One exception: Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest district, which has announced that most middle and high school students will remain in remote learning until at least November.

Elementary schools, which began gradually welcoming students back this month, will resume full-time, in-person classes on Oct. 21 as planned, said Superintendent Susana Cordova, given younger students are at a lower risk of severe COVID-19 illness and have more challenges with remote learning.

It’s also easier to cohort students at the primary level than it is in middle and high schools, where one positive case can force dozens of students and staff members into quarantine and a couple can shut down a school entirely.

That’s the biggest reason Dr. Steve Federico, pediatric doctor with Denver Health, advised DPS to keep secondary students learning remotely until the rate of community spread decreases in Denver. (Special education students and English-language learners in the secondary grades are eligible to receive in-person education.)

“The spread of COVID within schools when we follow the mitigation measures of wearing masks and spacing is very, very, very low,” Federico said. “The risk of being in school is largely around having to start and stop again, the quarantining that happens when you do have a case in a school that causes lots of kids to have to go home, and the difficulties of doing education in fits and starts.”

Parent Mark Simon, whose 12-year-old daughter attends Morey Middle School, said he feels like kids are being punished by not having access to in-person learning.

“I don’t think we are prioritizing education and doing everything we possibly can to get kids back in school,” Simon said. “I’m really concerned the longer we go with 100% remote learning the more challenges that these kids are going to face.”

Leigh Walden, a senior in Douglas County School District, has firsthand experience switching learning formats after her school, Castle View High, shuttered briefly due to quarantine-related staffing issues. She called the experience stressful and annoying, and agreed that it prevents students from getting in a rhythm.

U.S. school reopenings

Some preliminary data on U.S. school reopenings, reported by The Atlantic, echoes Federico’s point that schools are not the vector for spreading COVID-19, thanks to risk mitigation tactics like mask-wearing, social distancing and sanitizing. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has reported about 30 school-related virus outbreaks since the fall semester began.

Another recent study of a half-million people in India, however, also found that kids and young adults could be more important to transmitting the virus than previously thought, especially within households. Glen Mays, professor and chair of the Department of Health Systems, Management and Policy in the University of Colorado’s School of Public Health, says he’s encouraged by the fact in-person learning is going “relatively well” at many schools, but cautioned case trends in the broader community will eventually make their way into educational institutions.

“The biggest problem that we have right now is reining in transmission in the community,” Mays said. “The most important thing is to remain agile as a school and be ready to change things up.”

Some districts do not anticipate changing up their format just yet.

Jeffco Public Schools would move to remote learning if ordered to by public health entities or if the community status changes to Stay at Home, said spokeswoman Cameron Bell.

Aurora Public Schools also plans to continue operating on a hybrid learning format, despite trends in district-tracked metrics that would indicate a move to remote learning. Superintendent Rico Munn told families he will monitor COVID conditions for two weeks to determine if schools should pivot to remote education.

Others, like Douglas County School District, are preparing to offer more opportunities for in-person learning. The district will reopen elementary schools for in-person school five days a week on Oct. 19, despite the fact its metrics for tracking community COVID-19 conditions call for a hybrid format. A letter to families says student COVID numbers impacting elementary schools are considerably lower than middle and high schools.

That did little to ease parent Ruben Hansen-Rojas’ concerns. His 9-year-old has been attending school in person two days a week at Prairie Crossing Elementary, where class capacities will now return to normal.

“It just feels like they’re not using science and these metrics they agreed they would use to keep our kids as safe and healthy as possible,” Hansen-Rojas said.

Other districts’ methodologies have also raised concerns as they have changed over time. Cherry Creek School District recently started factoring the percentage of students and staff actively infected with COVID-19 in determining whether to offer in-person classes. Its dashboard has consistently said conditions are appropriate for in-person classes. But by the original standard — which weighed two-week average test positivity rate, daily hospitalizations, the number of daily reported cases and 14-day incident rate per 100,000 residents — the conditions on Monday and Tuesday of this week would have called for remote learning.

That’s not necessarily cause for concern, according to Mays.

“Schools are definitely having to learn and adapt as they go, just like every other sector that is responding to this pandemic,” he said. “It’s monitoring the patterns and trends over time that allows us to learn what signals are consistent with continuing safe operation of schools.”

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