Roughly two weeks following the start of full, in-person learning at Douglas County secondary schools, the health department temporarily shut down one high school amid multiple outbreaks in its building and days later asked three additional schools to follow suit.
District and health department leaders said schools are seeing more COVID-19 exposure within schools since the district launched 100% in-person learning at middle and high schools on March 22.
They expected that to happen. But some unusual or new trends are surfacing too.
Douglas County Schools typically closed schools in the past when COVID-19 pushed systems to the brink logistically, not simply based on the number of outbreaks.
“It's not common for us to recommend closing the school due to any type of illness, including COVID, so this is a pretty severe outcome,” said Tri-County Health Department epidemiologist Jennifer Chase, also director of the agency's COVID-19 Disease Control Branch.
While full in-person learning efforts are underway in Douglas County, its incidence rates are faring worse than Adams and Arapahoe counties — the other two counties served by Tri-County Health — which is something not previously seen during the pandemic, the district's Chief Assessment and Data Officer Matt Reynolds said during the April 6 board of education meeting.
Douglas County now has the third-highest case rate in the state, Chase said.
Reynolds said COVID-19 data trends are nowhere near what the district saw last semester during the pandemic's third wave, but Douglas County's COVID data “has been inching upwards ever so slightly since early February.”
Douglas County's 7-day cumulative incidence rate per 100,000 people sat at 203 as of April 5, and the two-week rate reached 356. Both the 7-day and two-week average test positivity rates sat just below 7%.
Reynolds said he pulled the data on April 5, but it had already increased by the board's meeting the next day.
The two-week incidence rate among youth ages 5 to 18 had changed from -24.5% on April 5 to more than 41% by April 6, he said.
Knowing whether community spread is leading to more transmission in schools or vice versa remains a chicken or the egg scenario, Chase said. It's also too early to tell if local cases are travel-related following the district's spring break during the week of March 15, she said.
Spread in Douglas County is likely being spurred by numerous factors —communities have reopened more and more in recent weeks, and everywhere the public is generally growing weary of pandemic precautions, Chase said — but the health department expects in-person learning plays a role.
Tri-County Health asked Mountain Vista High School in Highlands Ranch to go fully remote for two weeks after at least five outbreaks took hold in the school, Interim Superintendent Corey Wise said April 6.
The school would begin two weeks of remote learning on April 7.
An outbreak in a school setting is defined by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment as at least two positive cases occurring within a classroom, cohort or group from separate households within a two-week span.
Once a school reaches five outbreaks, state health department guidelines require the building shutter for 14 days.
Chase said about five additional Douglas County middle and high schools were nearing that threshold as of April 7. One day later, the health department directed three more schools to go remote, a district spokeswoman said.
Those were Castle View High School in Castle Rock, Rocky Heights Middle School in Highlands Ranch and Sierra Middle School in Parker. All three would transition to remote learning on April 9.
By April 9, Rock Canyon High School in Highlands Ranch also learned it would transition to remote education for two weeks starting April 13. The Tri-County Health Department confirmed at least five outbreaks within the school, according to a letter sent to the school community.
Schools can also be required to temporarily close if 5% or more of students, teachers and staff test positive in a 14-day period, a more difficult criteria to meet, Chase said.
At Mountain Vista, the health department identified at least 20 cases in the past two weeks stemming from 14 different cohorts, Chase said, including classrooms, physical education settings and athletics.
The health department is investigating whether the cases are linked.
Until this point in the pandemic, district leadership has said most cases in schools originated from exposures to the broader community. Both Wise and Chase said they now believe transmission is happening among students in schools.
The health department also believes it is “highly likely” the new strain B.1.1.7 first identified in the U.K. is present at Mountain Vista and contributing to the spread there.
That's concerning because the variant is more transmissible, some recent data shows it is more transmissible among children, and there is the potential for higher hospitalization rates, Chase said.
“So, we want to stop this before it gets out of control,” she said.
The CDC's Director Rochelle Walensky said April 7 the U.K. strain is now the dominant strain in the U.S., as more cases occur among youth nationally, according to multiple media reports.
Tri-County Health is monitoring spread Douglas County schools nearing closure and urging mass testing at Mountain Vista to help catch asymptomatic cases, Chase said. The agency is working with the district to see if mass testing can be arranged, she said.
The state health department has mobile testing centers that might be available to deploy at Mountain Vista at no cost to the school or families. The district could also lean on other community testing sites, she said.
The full scope of COVID-19 within Douglas County Schools is difficult to judge from publicly available data.
The district's COVID-19 dashboard on April 5 showed Mountain Vista had more than 500 people in quarantine and 34 in isolation. At some high schools, the dashboard reported hundreds of people in quarantine and a mere handful at others.
Sierra Middle School teacher Bridget McCoy said during the April 6 board meeting the district's dashboard appeared inaccurate and underreported quarantines at her school. That combined with the district's decision to stop issuing schoolwide letters about COVID-19 cases in schools is leaving people in the dark, she said.
“The reality really isn't reflected,” she said.
Reynolds said staff have been unable to regularly update COVID-19 metrics on the district's website since secondary schools resumed in-person learning. Employees are tied up handling contact tracing and responding to new COVID-19 cases.
Reynolds said the district will need to re-evaluate how it updates that information “in a more-timely fashion” moving forward.
“We're going to have to go back to the drawing board,” he said.
A district spokeswoman said staff is working to update the dashboard in response to requests for daily totals of new COVID-19 cases, isolations and quarantines at DCSD secondary schools this quarter. That data is not available through the Tri-County Health Department, a spokesman said, only incidence rates among youth in the county.
Wise said April 6 the district and schools are managing challenges to full in-person. A silver lining, he said, is that the community learned resiliency during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our students and teachers have adjusted to transitioning,” he said.
This story has been updated to show additional schools switching to remote learning.
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