Reading, Writing And COVID: Colorado’s Return To School Immediately Led To The Virus Spreading

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Rylan, a second-grader, draws a cheerful ice cream cone furing Carson Elementary’s Discovery Link after-school program. March 17, 2021.

It’s no surprise to epidemiologists, but just days or weeks into the new school year, one thing about schools and COVID-19 is already becoming clear: Thousands of Colorado kids, and plenty of their teachers or other school staff, are going to catch the highly contagious viral disease.

There have already been nearly 500 newly reported cases in just four school districts - Mesa, Douglas, Cherry Creek, and Denver Public Schools. Of those, more than 280 came from Douglas County district-run schools alone, where classes started Aug. 9. A mask requirement went into effect for younger grades there starting Monday. The bulk of the cases in Dougco predate that requirement.

Denver, the state’s largest district, which just started classes Monday and is requiring masks, had 35 confirmed positive cases on its COVID-19 tracking dashboard after day one, 20 of those among students.

“My response to how I feel about it doesn't play well on public radio,” said parent Alex Huffman who has been watching the statewide COVID-19 numbers with trepidation. He has three children under 11, too young to be eligible for vaccine, in the Littleton School District. One of those kids is at high risk for medical reasons. 

Littleton, where masks are required for students and staff in grades PK-6, reported 27 cases total as of Tuesday: 14 pre-K and elementary students in isolation due to a positive COVID-19 test, plus six middle schoolers, five high schoolers and two LPS staffers. 

“The delta variant is much worse than (what schools dealt with) last year. Cases among kids are going up steeply, and we've got to do something more strenuously than we did last year, but the opposite is being put into place,” said Huffman, who is an aerosol expert and associate professor of chemistry at the University of Denver.  

Huffman said with the delta variant roaming unchecked, mandatory masks and greatly enhanced ventilation are critical. But both those things are not happening at many schools in many districts. And he fears that will drive cases even further upward. 

“It deeply frustrates me both as a parent and as a professional aerosol scientist,” Huffman said.

Returning to schools was always going to be challenging. Then the Delta variant happened

Part of the problem is timing. Schools are resuming in-person classes just as community spread of the more contagious delta variant of COVID-19 is on the rise throughout the state. Grouping a large and unvaccinated population of kids under 12 together indoors is a recipe for spread, perhaps even with some precautions like mandatory face coverings in place.

“We think we’re in a fifth wave (of the pandemic),” said Beth Carlton, an associate professor for the School of Public Health at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus, and member of the Colorado COVID-19 Modeling Team that provides epidemiological modeling for the state. “Now is the time to take things seriously.“

She added as an epidemiologist she’d like to see the denominator for the COVID-19 numbers in each district. In other words, the case rate, which is a better gauge than just case numbers. That’s not something most districts are now posting on their websites.

Carlton said it’s not unexpected to see school districts reporting new cases, but if the case numbers get big or grow sharply that would heighten concerns.

“It’s not panic time,” Carlton said, but time for schools, educators, parents and students to all take the risk of the virus seriously.

For most children, COVID-19 is not a severe threat. Coloradans 0-9 years old are just 1.07 percent of the total number of people hospitalized during the pandemic, a total of about 375 younger kids. Those 10-19 are 2.06 percent of the 35,000 who have been hospitalized. Fewer than five children younger than 10 have died from the disease in Colorado.

But each infection provides the virus a host, and an opportunity to spread further in the community, perhaps to more vulnerable people, like the elderly or those with pre-existing conditions. Vaccinations have greatly reduced the severity of the illness and the likelihood of contracting the virus, but even vaccinated elderly residents remain at some risk from COVID-19.

What the rate of COVID cases look like at different Colorado school districts

A look at the numbers posted as of Tuesday afternoon from the four districts spotlights the reality of high levels of community transmission happening in the state.

Mesa District 51 reported 97 active student cases on the 11th day of school, according to its dashboard. It has no mask requirement and the delta variant has hit Mesa County hard since it first appeared there. The district reports that those cases represent 0.46 percent of students. Another 12 active cases are among staff, down from 16 active cases on Aug. 13.

Cherry Creek Schools reports 29 positives in kids and 9 among staff through seven days. Twenty of the student positives were at PK-6 schools where a mask mandate is in place. But only three of the staff positives were at PK-6 schools.

And after just one day, Denver Public Schools is reporting on its web-based tracker 35 confirmed positive cases, 20 among kids and 15 among staff.

And Douglas County Schools had more than 280 cases total among students and staff since the start of school, with at least 247 of those being among students. To Carlton’s point, that number represents fewer than one-half of one percent of Dougco’s 66,000 students. The Douglas County School Board resisted demands from parents at a boisterous Tuesday night meeting to roll back the mask mandate.

Still, the cases are already becoming disruptive in some schools. Second grade at the STEM School Highlands Ranch was moved to remote learning after a confirmed COVID outbreak, and a note to parents encouraged them to prepare for the possibility that all elementary grades would move online soon.

“While we hope that it will not happen, we are asking for all families to begin to prepare for the possibility of transitioning to virtual learning,” read the letter to parents. “This would include making sure that your student has access to a laptop, computer or tablet.”

What mask-wearing, regular testing and vaccination can do

It’s too early to draw any conclusions about the effectiveness of mask-wearing in classes, though public health officials insist that it slows or halts spread and studies have shown masks are not harmful to kids. Physicians are watching the school numbers closely for signs that could point to positive impacts of masks, in order to head off continuing protests.

“I find it interesting that the (districts) that are not requiring masks or vaccination have higher (COVID-19 case) numbers, I think that's probably going to continue,” said Mark Johnson, the president-elect of the Colorado Medical Society, the state’s largest physician’s group.

“The kicker in all this is how much testing is everybody doing? Because that's the way we're going to find positive cases,” said Johnson, the longtime former public health director in Jefferson County.

Johnson said he thought schools should be testing staff and students two or three times a week, catching and isolating cases. But that’s not happening everywhere, which means it’ll be harder to stop transmission, especially with the super-contagious delta variant driving more cases.

“We're finding that kids for the most part are able to carry the virus without being as symptomatic,” he said. “The problem is that they can pass it on.”

“So, I think that the answer to this, if there is one, if we're going to have schools open, you’ve got to start out with everyone who can get vaccinated, getting staff, as well as those over 12. Then you have to have a mask order,” he said. 

But that’s proven controversial. Some districts have chosen not to require masks, or to require them for only those under 12, who can not get vaccinated. Also, the governor and state health department have chosen to recommend, rather than require, that masks be worn in schools.

A look at child COVID hospitalizations in Colorado

Dr. Bernadette Albanese, an epidemiologist with Tri-County Health said perhaps 2 percent of infected children might be hospitalized. But there’s a huge difference if 2 percent of a hundred cases get hospitalized compared with 2 percent of 5,000 or 10,000 cases. She said the bigger the number of cases, the larger the time bomb for hospitals and the community to grapple with.

“We are absolutely concerned (about that possibility),” Albanese said.

Meantime, higher case numbers raise concerns that pediatric hospitalizations will rise considerably, something that’s been seen in other states.

Children’s Hospital Colorado reports experiencing high patient volumes at all its locations in its emergency departments and inpatient units, which is something it manages every winter. Part of that is an unusually busy summer with a typical childhood respiratory infection.

“However, it is highly unusual and concerning for us to see volumes this high at this point in the year, especially when we know we’ll have more patients once school is fully in session and more viruses circulate,” said Dr. Kevin Carney, associate chief medical officer at Children’s Hospital Colorado. “We also have never experienced the workforce shortages that are impacting the entire healthcare industry.”

Carney said to help reduce the risk of spreading viruses and “flatten the curve for kids,” it’s more crucial than ever for parents and leaders “to partner with us and take protective measures, like washing hands frequently and wearing masks in schools.”

Editor's note and correction: This story has been edited to clarify the timing and details of mask requirements in Douglas County and Littleton schools, and to correct the start date for Douglas County Schools.