Douglas County leaders push for changes in school COVID protocols

Community debates continue as schoolchildren finish out the year

Jessica Gibbs
jgibbs@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 4/30/21

First one secondary school closed its doors. Then four. Within days, six Douglas County middle and high schools had shuttered to in-person learning, sending those students back online for two weeks …

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Douglas County leaders push for changes in school COVID protocols

Community debates continue as schoolchildren finish out the year

Posted

First one secondary school closed its doors. Then four. Within days, six Douglas County middle and high schools had shuttered to in-person learning, sending those students back online for two weeks amid COVID-19 outbreaks.

Incidence rates continued to climb through late-April, likely spurred in-part by new, more transmissible variants.

What had been a long-anticipated, and for many a long-pleaded for, return to 100% in-person learning at Douglas County School District secondary schools seemed for a moment to hang in the balance.

Interim Superintendent Corey Wise responded with a promise that in-person learning was “here to stay.”

But thousands of people were being placed in quarantine, in addition to the string of schools moving remote. Wise recently joined several area superintendents in calling for an end to mandatory quarantines.

A letter from roughly a dozen superintendents to CDPHE Executive Director Jill Hunsaker Ryan dated April 26 pointed to low transmission in schools, although data supporting that is restrictive, as it does not capture possible spread among quarantined individuals who do not test for COVID.

“The frequent school quarantines have caused constant disruption to classroom environments, stress for students preparing for end of year exams, and a lack of predictability and consistency in almost every facet of a student's school experience,” the letter read.

The rocky start to in-person learning, which launched March 22 at secondary schools, capped an already fraught year of community debate.

Local elected leaders openly scrutinized the school district. Some community members routinely chastised district leaders for not sending older students back full-time sooner, while others had begged the district to continue hybrid learning for fear of the mass quarantines that later unfolded.

DCSD officials attempted to assure the public they were advocating for a less tumultuous school experience, balanced with public health safety measures.

Wise in recent weeks laid out several changes he thought the state could make to COVID protocols for schools to make in-person learning more stable.

“We want you to know we are advocating hard,” he said April 20.

Finding a balance

On April 19, Wise told Colorado Community Media he was eagerly awaiting updated school requirements from the state health department, which he'd expected the previous week. He hoped CDPHE would make changes to its cases and outbreak guidance.

Come the board's April 20 school board meeting, Wise told directors the district was still waiting to see if updates were coming.

At the time, Wise suggested lowering the distance requirement designating who must quarantine, down from six feet to three feet. He also thought the state could consider adjusting its criteria for temporarily stopping in-person learning at a school.

The six Douglas County schools transitioned into remote learning after reaching at least five outbreaks in each building, a threshold set by CDPHE. An outbreak is defined by state guidance as two or more cases within a classroom or cohort in a two-week span.

Wise suggested waiting to send schools remote until 10% of people test positive, although for some DCSD high schools that could be upwards of 200 students.

Another option could be only requiring a person who is ill or displaying symptoms to quarantine if they and everyone they had close contact with was wearing masks, he said.

A spokeswoman said Wise was in talks with the Colorado Department of Education, Tri-County Health and CDPHE, along with other school districts, regarding school requirements.

District board members have pushed back against claims the district can decide what state guidance to follow, or how broadly they can interpret it.

Tri-County Health Executive Director John Douglas released a letter on April 16, saying the state's cases and outbreaks “guidance,” including quarantine protocols, are mandatory for schools. That includes criteria for when schools can use targeted quarantining, he wrote.
 
In past public meetings, Douglas has repeatedly said schools are safe places with COVID-19 mitigation strategies in place. A spokesman for the Tri-County Health Department said staff would not comment on potential updates to CDPHE school guidance until those requirements are issued.
 
Public health officials also warned of a fourth wave as variants spread and incidence rates rose during much of April.
 
Vaccines are not available to Coloradans under the age of 16. Incidence rates among school-age children, particularly those at the middle and high school level, spiked in Douglas County during March and into April to levels not seen since November and December.
 
On April 29, state epidemeologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy defended school quarantines, The Denver Post reported, saying there has been increased transmission among youth and that quarantines help slow the virus' spread.
 
Late that day, the state issued some updates to school requirements. Spokesman Brian Spencer with the Colorado State Joint Information Center said changes to how contact tracing is conducted in schools were aimed at getting students back to in-person learning sooner if they became exposed to COVID-19 or experiencing symptoms.
 
Fully vaccinated people and people who tested positive for COVID-19 in the past 90 days would not have to quarantine if asymptomatic.
 
Brian also provided a statement in response to several emailed questions prior to the April 29 update.
 
The governor's “Roadmap to In-Person Learning” issued in December was informed by a work group of parents, educators, school leaders and public health experts, he said.
 
The plan stresses PCR testing and the state is committed to “expanding testing capacity as necessary.” It aims to boost rapid-testing in schools for use when students or staff show symptoms, and CDPHE provides home test kits to reduce pressures on schools, he said.
 
Spencer said the state is engaging local health agencies and leaders in education to “provide the most comprehensive and up-to-date guidance.” The state's “north star has always been protecting hospital capacity and saving lives,” he said.
 
“We understand the unique circumstances that parents of schoolchildren have faced over more than a year of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said. “We are continuing to monitor disease transmission and hospital capacity, and the state's response teams will pivot as necessary to best protect public health.”
 
Wise provided a statement chastising the April 29 school requiremnts update, and said DCSD is continuing to work with other districts toward "greater leniency in quarantine restrictions."
 
"It is disappointing that after 12 Colorado school districts collectively shared concerns with CDPHE, the updated guidance hasn't dramatically changed. The new guidance is also contradictory in places, which leads to confusion," Wise said.

Call to keep schools open

In the past year frustration with schools at times spilled over into other local government bodies' meetings, in municipal and county officials' inboxes and in pushback from elected leaders as well.

Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon said while the county does not have jurisdiction over schools, commissioners do represent young residents.

At the pandemic's onset, he understood keeping students out of school as an effort to prevent young people from asymptomatically transmitting the virus to vulnerable populations.

As of April 29, 85% of Douglas County residents ages 70 and older were fully vaccinated, according to Tri-County Health data. Roughly 67% of people aged 60 to 69 were fully vaccinated.

Overall, 57% of county residents 16 and older had received at least one dose and 38% were fully inoculated as of April 29.

Laydon's concern today is with youth mental health, and the stressors school-age residents face without access to consistent, in-person learning, he said.

“We would hope that decision-makers rely on public health data that reflects the high-vaccination rate of the vulnerable,” he said.

Castle Rock Mayor Pro Tem Kevin Bracken echoed Laydon.

Bracken participates in weekly calls Tri-County Health holds with Douglas County officials regarding pandemic updates. Through those he's watched how school closures, contact tracing and quarantining is managed, he said.

He emerged early in the pandemic as a vocal critic of not only restaurant and school requirements but Tri-County Health, which he said did not push back enough against CDPHE guidance.

“They are not standing up or standing behind their own data,” he said.

Bracken's son is a junior at Castle View High School and spent more than 50 days in quarantine this school year, he said. The day his son was released from his most recent quarantine, Castle View became one of the six Douglas County schools ordered into remote education. The school has since resumed in-person learning.

When most school-age children experience mild COVID-19 symptoms, and many high-risk residents are vaccinated, he asked why schools should quarantine entire classrooms or stop in-person learning, including temporarily amid outbreaks.

Since Douglas County Schools launched full, in-person learning at secondary schools on March 22, Tri-County Health has recorded four COVID-19 deaths in Douglas County, according to online data as of April 29.

“Look at the death rate, look at the hospitalizations and look at the severity. Stop going with positive tests,” Bracken said.

This story has been updated to reflect additional changes to state school guidelines.

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