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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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.
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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