Unvaccinated students who attend Jefferson County schools and who participate in athletics and other extracurricular activities must begin mandatory weekly COVID testing this week.
The edict is one element of the Jefferson County Public Health order issued Aug. 16 that also required all students and staff to wear masks. All unvaccinated staff must also participate in weekly COVID testing.
High schools recently notified families who participate in athletics and other activities like band or choir that they had to provide their student’s vaccination status. The district said it finalized the testing implementation plan last week.
Scaling up COVID testing for JeffCo students and staff has been tricky.
At a Thursday board meeting, the district said of its 13,000 full-time, part-time and seasonal employees, more than 10,000 have submitted their vaccination status. Some of the 3,000 who didn’t may not have submitted their status because they work seasonally and haven’t started yet.
Superintendent Tracy Dorland said scaling up regular COVID testing in a district the size of Jefferson County, with 84,000 students and 14,000 employees, has been challenging.
But the district is partnering with the state health department to contract with a third party to run the testing on site in high schools at a total of 18 locations.
“Our goal was to make it as easy and seamless as possible for our employees and the students who might need to do this,” Dorland said.
The testing, which will be paid for with federal funds, can also be used for other students who, for example, aren’t feeling well and may want a test.
“They’ll know very quickly that they don’t have COVID, and if they wake up and they feel good, ‘Come on back to school, kiddo,’ because we want our students in school,” she said. “I don’t want healthy children who don’t have COVID staying home.”
Facing a roomful of parents opposed to weekly COVID tests, Dorland said the district is legally required to follow public health mitigation strategies.
Several parents at last week’s board meeting asked the school board to publicly push back against the health department order.
They called the order to test unvaccinated students discriminatory, arbitrary and capricious.
“An unvaccinated student who takes PE but doesn’t play football, is not required to be tested,” said Susan Miller Youll, a Lakewood parent of a student athlete. “If he takes PE during the school day and plays football after school, he is mandated to be tested. Is this logical? Is this health-based?”
Parent Joshua Romero, after reciting a long list of problems he sees with mask-wearing, vaccines and testing, said his children should not be denied access to publicly funded facilities or other resources “because they will not inflict harm onto themselves.”
“I want to thank you guys for crushing my son’s dreams of being a professional athlete because he doesn’t want to harm himself every week,” he told the board, referring to the rapid COVID test the district will be using.
Others worried that singling children out for testing will cause them to feel shame.
“This is wrong,” said parent Beth Parker. “It’s wrong because children have earned and deserve the right to attend school and participate in activities normally without the arm of one appointed official attempting to sideline them in ways that are not happening in other counties.”
She said it only serves to punish children.
Testing for after-school programs is a means of protecting in-person learning, school officials say
At the board meeting, Dorland acknowledged that she has a respectful difference of opinion with the county board of health on the issue. She said she believes extracurriculars and after-school clubs are an essential part of public education, while the health department’s priority has been in-person academic learning.
“And they do not want us to put in-person learning at risk, because of extra-curricular activities that students might be participating in and then possibly spreading COVID through,” she said.
In announcing the order, Dr. Dawn Comstock, executive director of the Jefferson County Health Department, said protecting in-person learning is a goal shared by parents, school leaders and public health leaders.
“Keeping kids in school is something we all want, and with some simple but important steps, we can preserve this next school year for our Jeffco youth.”
Superintendent Dorland said the district has pushed the county health department for “goalposts” — metrics and targets — the district needs to meet before restrictions can be removed and “get back to normal.”
“We are not getting clear answers from public health on that issue,” she said. “I think we should continue to push public health for really clear metrics for when some of these mitigation strategies can be removed.”
You want to know what is really going on these days, especially in Colorado. We can help you keep up. The Lookout is a free, daily email newsletter with news and happenings from all over Colorado. Sign up here and we will see you in the morning!