Metro School Districts Will Go On Extended Breaks Due To Coronavirus Concerns

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Gateway High School in Aurora in 2017.

Several of the state's largest school districts announced Thursday that they would institute extended closures of all schools as the coronavirus spreads through Colorado.

School districts in Denver, Jeffco, Boulder, Aurora and Cherry Creek, among others, all announced extended district-wide closures in a series of announcements and press conferences that began Thursday afternoon and continued into the evening as concern about the coronavirus grew across the state.

At a 7 p.m. briefing at the downtown offices of DPS, superintendent Susana Cordova said the closure is designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

DPS students were scheduled to be out from March 30 through April 6. They will now be out starting Monday, March 16 through April 6. School will be in session Friday.

"We are still monitoring what this will mean for the school year and are continuing to look into what this will look like moving ahead," Cordova said in a district release. "We will share more information as soon as it’s available." 

Jeffco Schools made their announcement just after 8 p.m., closing schools starting Monday March 16 through March 27. They were already set to be on spring break from March 23-27.

"We know that closing our schools will have a significant impact on our families and we will continue to work with our community partners to identify support services and resources," Jeffco officials said in a release. "We will send follow-up communications with additional information about remote learning, support resources, food service, and other updates."

Aurora District spokesperson Corey Christiansen said that district will extend spring break for an extra week, then "reassess" whether students can return March 30. Spring break in Aurora begins Friday.

"This action is an effective way to slow the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19)," Christiansen wrote in an email to CPR. "This means our spring break will last from March 16 through March 27. We are also canceling all athletics, activities, events, facilities rentals and childcare during this extended spring break.

"We will reassess the situation by March 27 and decide whether students and staff should return on March 30."

In Brighton, District 27J also announced that they would close all schools immediately. Those schools will remain closed at least through March 27.

Cherry Creek schools also will be closed starting Friday through March 27 to control the spread of coronavirus. The closure there also includes daycare services.

Colorado Springs-area school districts Harrison and Colorado Springs District 11 also announced that they would take an extended spring break, closing all schools for two weeks.

And just before 8 pm, Boulder Valley schools announced they would join the other districts, closing starting Friday, through March 27.

The Jeffco announcement capped a wild four hours of metro-area school district dominoes that mimicked the hours before a blizzard hits the area. It began when Aurora announced their school closure at 5 pm, That was followed by Cherry Creek, then Brighton, then Denver, Boulder and Jeffco as one district after another acted to try and slow the spread of the virus, despite no known infections of young children in Colorado.

And it now provokes a new question parents must answer with little warning: What do we do with the kids?

Any extended closures will leave families scrambling to find ways to provide childcare. Schools are also figuring out how students can continue their curriculum remotely and how to provide lunch to students who rely on free and reduced-price lunches. 

DPS announced plans to distribute food at breakfast and lunch at eight sites around the city, but Cordova acknowledged that child care could be an issue for many families with such short notice.

COVID-19 is a new kind of coronavirus that has not been seen in humans. Because it’s so new, experts aren’t exactly sure how it spreads. It’s likely that infection depends on how close you are to someone who has contracted the illness, how long you are near the person, and whether that person projects viral droplets on you or something you touch. The virus hangs out in mucus and saliva.

There are 48 positive cases since the first positive tests were returned on March 5, plus a possible 49th case that is still awaiting confirmation.

Gov. Jared Polis declared a statewide emergency on March 10.

There have been no deaths in Colorado attributed to the virus.

The state ordered Wednesday evening that any school with a single confirmed case in a staff member or a student to close for a minimum of three days for cleaning and social distancing.

Read more: Is there a vaccine, drug or treatment for COVID-19?

If there are two cases within a month, the state is requiring an additional three-day closure. If there are three within a month, schools have to close for 14 days.

If three schools within a single district have confirmed cases within a month, all schools are required to close for a minimum of 14 days.

No schools are known to have met any of those criteria yet.

Also Thursday, the Colorado High School Activities Association announced they were canceling spring sports and activities until April 6

The CDC is telling schools to update its emergency operations plans, be in contract with health officials for guidance, monitor rates of absenteeism, and to prepare for lessons to be taught remotely in case schools must close. 

The Colorado school districts are following roughly the same pattern seen elsewhere in the nation as the coronavirus takes hold.

Seattle Public Schools are closing for at least two weeks because of the pandemic. For vulnerable students, the district is implementing an emergency food plan Monday. The Elk Grove School District in Sacramento County, California closed schools for the entire week.

New Mexico closed all schools statewide for three weeks starting Monday March 16.

Many school districts in Colorado have not yet made a decision on whether to close, but all have at least begun planning for the possibility.

Most schools have some form of online learning but many are not confident they have the capacity or resources for everyone to participate. For Falcon School District 49 in El Paso County, the only remote learning available is for the high school; younger students don’t have access, which could be a challenge if those districts chose to close.

Mesa County Valley School District, which serves the Grand Junction area, doesn’t have remote learning capabilities to accommodate long closures if they were implemented.

Academy School District 20, also in El Paso County, knows it is able to provide remote learning because the majority of the district works on Schoology, an online learning management system. However, the elementary schools are not using it and the district isn’t sure how long it will take to add them to the system if they chose to close schools.

Extended closures would also expose the state's gaps in broadband coverage, where some students would not be able to get online reliably.

Meals are another question.

Mesa County, Summit and Douglas County school districts said there is a plan to provide meals to students who rely on them if those districts decided later to close.

Falcon School District 49, Poudre School Districts, Eagle County, Adams-12, Greeley-Evans School District 6 and Academy School District 20 said they do not have a plan but are actively looking for solutions should they choose to close.

The Colorado Department of Education said the department’s School Nutrition Unit will work with districts for emergency feeding operations if there are any closures because of public health concerns.