As the omicron coronavirus variant explodes throughout Colorado, Douglas County School District leadership spent much of the first board meeting of 2022 looking at COVID-19 trends in the district and what mitigation strategies will be in place during the second semester.
With a board divided over COVID-19 response, the issue sparked some debate at the Jan. 11 meeting, as the room also grappled with how to balance taking safety precautions with limited staff available to implement the district’s guidelines.
“There is no one perfect way to work though COVID. Period. If there was, everyone would be doing it,” Superintendent Corey Wise said.
DCSD is faring similarly to its neighbor districts in terms of COVID data trends and experiencing pressures on the system that schools throughout the state are too, Wise said. He offered staffing shortages as an example.
Learning Services Officer Matt Reynolds highlighted pediatric COVID-19 data for the county as of Jan. 10.
“We are dealing with numbers that we have never seen. We are dealing with incidence rates that we have never seen,” Reynolds said during the meeting, echoing Wise in saying a silver lining is that the omicron variant looks to be causing less severe illness.
There remains one COVID-19 death among people younger than 18 in Douglas County. People under 18 accounted for .8% of hospitalized COVID-19 cases in the Tri-County Health region.
Although it’s heartening to see incidence rates might be dipping, Reynolds said, data shows a considerable spike in cases across age groups in late December.
Weekly incidence rates per 100,000 people range between 1,064.4 among children ages 6 to 11, 1,083 among children ages 12 to 17 and 1,390.5 among people over 18. The largest percent change was among 12- to 17-year-olds at 55.2%.
In addition to pediatric data, Tri-County Health’s dashboard showed Douglas County’s ICUs were at 96% capacity and inpatient beds were 94% full as of Jan. 12. Nearly 30% of beds were occupied by known or suspected COVID-19 patients.
Pandemic guidelines in schools
This semester, the district intends to implement seating charts in classrooms to help with contact tracing and to know which quarantining procedures people should follow.
Assistant Superintendent Danelle Hiatt said schools have comprehensive plans for if they need to shift a building or classroom to remote learning temporarily. That’s in part because schools had much practice making the switch in past semesters, she said.
The district will also continue using isolation rooms for when someone is sick and needs to be sent home from school. Anyone who is sick, regardless of whether they have contracted COVID-19, is asked to stay home.
Although not required, the district is strongly encouraging people to mask indoors. There are certain situations in which masking becomes mandatory. One is if the district needs to make Americans with Disabilities Act accommodations, and another is if there is a declared outbreak.
Wise said there are classrooms in the district where everyone is being required to mask, because of an at-risk individual in the room.
There are different procedures for quarantining, depending on whether exposures are associated with an outbreak and if people are vaccinated.
If a school is not in a declared outbreak, guidelines are for potentially exposed people to wear a mask for 10 days, test five days after their exposure and monitor themselves or symptoms.
If exposures are linked to a declared outbreak, quarantining guidelines differ for vaccinated and unvaccinated people.
Those who are vaccinated are asked to stay in school but wear a mask for 10 days, test on day five, monitor for symptoms, and immediately quarantine and seek PCR testing if symptoms emerge.
If someone is not vaccinated but was exposed to COVID-19 in an outbreak situation, they have two options.
The first is called “test-to-stay.” They can stay in school, wear a mask for 10 days, test on day five, and monitor for symptoms. Their second option is to quarantine for five days, wear a mask for 10 days and test on day five. People are asked to quarantine and seek PCR testing if they become symptomatic.
Special Education Services Officer Sid Rundle said the district is in hourly contact with the Douglas County Health Department and Jogan Health Solutions, which helped create the set of guidelines. The second-semester plan is meant to encourage vaccination, “because if you’re vaccinated you don’t have to go home,” he said.
Debate among directors
Douglas County School Board President Mike Peterson said the recommendations still emphasize personal responsibility, masking choice and vaccine choice — issues that were important to him and his fellow Kids First candidates during school board elections.
Peterson said COVID-19 is so prevalent right now that people should assume they are being exposed daily.
“Telling you you were exposed is like telling you you woke up this morning,” he said.
Director Elizabeth Hanson raised several concerns about the district’s second-semester COVID guidelines.
“I know the mask issue, that ship has sailed,” she said. “I’m not trying to fight about masks.”
As one of their first major initiatives, the new board majority of Peterson, Becky Myers, Christy Williams and Kaylee Winegar fulfilled one of their campaign promises by making masks optional in most situations, in a 4-3 vote in December.
The district does not track how many people are vaccinated, Hanson said, making it hard to know how well exposure guidance for vaccinated and unvaccinated people is being followed.
There are several instances in the district’s guidance where masking is recommended, she said, but she worried community members will not heed those measures when the district has shifted to a parental-choice masking policy, saying it sends a confusing message.
The spread of omicron is significantly taxing the system, she said.
Teachers are spending on average one hour a day preparing to pack up materials for students to learn from home. That means trying to balance two jobs by teaching students in the classroom and those learning at home, she said.
Hanson said she adamantly supports letting people know if they were exposed to COVID-19 at school but that the district does not have the staffing capacity to issue the number of exposure notifications it needs to.
“It’s just fluff, it’s giving our community a false sense of mitigation structure that’s actually not in place,” Hanson said.
Director Becky Myers said she thinks the guidance emphasizes personal responsibility more than it does personal choice in masking. The pandemic has changed people’s perspective on going to work sick, she said, and she believes they have become more willing to stay home if symptomatic with any illness.
Director Christy Williams said she fully supported a suggestion from Director David Ray to give staff a mental health day, and she was willing to consider if a better policy would be to send some classrooms remote temporarily than asking teachers to handle both in-person and quarantined students.
Director David Ray said he was “sitting here kind of flustered” that employees were being asked to implement the COVID-19 guidance without enough manpower to do so.
“I’m just really having a hard time for our staff right now, especially for our nurses and our health assistants, holy cow,” he said. “We have these great plans, but we can’t implement with fidelity, so why are we doing it?”