Back To School Plans In Spring 2021 Will Hinge On Reducing The Spread Of Coronavirus

JeffCo Schools Bus Terminal
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
School buses parked at a Jefferson County terminal on Quail Street in Lakewood.

Getting students back in classrooms in 2021 will take a lot of testing, a lot of safety measures, and a lot of help from the public in reducing the spread of COVID-19 in communities across the state.

Gov. Jared Polis, along with a coalition of Denver-area superintendents and public health leaders on Tuesday, announced strategies to reopen schools to students in January. They said schools can safely reopen and virus spread will be minimal if safety measures are in place, including mandatory mask-wearing and expanded testing and contact tracing.

“Frankly, these (measures) create one of the safest work environments in the state, in school,” Polis said. 

In separate press events, both Polis and the superintendents emphasized the need to get students back into classrooms, to improve learning over online classes, and for the emotional health of the students who miss their friends and their routines.

“Getting students back in school and with their teachers is critically important,” Cherry Creek Schools Superintendent Scott Siegfried said in a press release. “As a learning organization, we must use the most up-to-date science, data and facts when making decisions about opening schools. Regular testing of students to identify asymptomatic cases along with the other new strategies will help us be more successful in that goal.”

A working group of parents, educators and public health officials met for three weeks to contribute to a Roadmap to In-Person Learning, identifying specific action steps and key areas that will enable schools to open safely while prioritizing the health of students and staff. Those include “prioritizing testing for schools, expanding contact tracing capacity for schools, continued mask-wearing, regular symptom screening, effective cohorting, continued social distancing, and effective ventilation.”

“In-person learning is critical for the health and development of children, particularly, the youngest children,” said Dr. Bill Burman, executive director of Denver Public Health and co-chair of Metro Denver Partnership for Health. “Re-opening schools for in-person learning, beginning with the youngest children, should be a public health priority for the Denver metro area.”

The superintendents group said it collected student and staff case data from 35 districts. It showed that of 41,000 students placed under quarantine from August through mid-November, just 166 tested positive during quarantine, or less than one percent. They said while this could be attributed to exposure at school, the percentages are low.

But the group said in-person learning becomes difficult to do when the virus is still spreading widely, suggesting a good yardstick is when there are more than 500 cases per 100,000 people. Many, if not most, places in the state are well above that now. According to the state’s COVID-19 dial dashboard on Tuesday, Denver County’s two-week cumulative incidence is 772; for El Paso County that figure is 1055, for Adams it’s 1027, for Jefferson it’s 829 and for Mesa, it’s 1050.

Those numbers are coming down across the state, but they’ll need to drop considerably to make it possible to operate schools, due to the concerns of staff and increasing numbers of quarantines from cases coming into schools from the community. Many districts struggled with having large numbers of teachers out due to COVID-19 quarantines in the fall.

Both the superintendent’s plan and the roadmap from the governor’s office highlight COVID-19 testing as key. The governor’s roadmap calls for regular screening for education and staff who want tests, for those with symptoms who need a diagnostic test and for those who do not have symptoms but have been quarantined after an exposure.

“We are recommending in the report that schools are able to have onsite testing for anybody who is symptomatic,” Polis said, adding the state is encouraging and prioritizing community testing sites.

“Access to fast and reliable COVID tests is one of the most critical mitigation strategies to help schools maintain the safest environment for in-person teaching and learning,” said Mike Johnston, president and CEO of Gary Community Investments, which provides testing to educators and the public through COVIDCheck Colorado. “Estimates suggest our kids, many of whom are already behind, could lose nearly an entire year of academic gains, all while their parents can't go to work and Colorado's economy continues to decline.”

The group of superintendents and public health leaders are advocating for educators to be prioritized in the vaccination schedule. They said once educators have a chance to get a vaccine shot, schools will have a better shot at staying open regardless of the virus’ spread.

In the state’s current vaccine distribution plan, educators are treated as “essential workers,” putting them ahead of the general public, alongside grocery store workers and others, but behind police, firefighters, funeral home workers and dental office employees. Vaccines would likely reach teachers in the Spring.

The governor said the vaccine is unlikely to affect the classroom practices for this coming semester, because while there could be teachers inoculated as soon as February, the vaccine requires a second shot 30 days later. 

“So that's why we have all these layered protections for teachers this semester,” Polis said. “The vaccine will hopefully protect teachers for summer school for next year, but the layer of protections are critical for this coming semester.”