With expanded testing, Denver metro school districts hope for January return

Looser quarantine rules to allow for less interruption to in-person learning


Testing for quarantined students, some preemptive testing in schools and modified quarantine requirements are expected to be the ticket to more consistent in-person classes for several school districts across the Denver metro area, the districts' leaders said in a Dec. 15 news conference.

But even with the expanded leeway to hold traditional classes, superintendents emphasized that if levels of COVID-19 spread remain at their currently high levels, schools may find it impossible to keep enough teachers out of quarantine to consistently keep classes in schools.

Chris Gdowski, head of Adams 12 Five Star Schools, expressed hope about the expanded testing capabilities that Gov. Jared Polis discussed at an earlier news conference the same day, along with nodding to new, less stringent quarantine guidance.

But “the most important part is to bring down this community transmission,” Gdowski said on the Dec. 15 online news conference. He added: “Without that, if we remain at 1,100 cases per 100,000 (per two weeks) in Adams County,” plans for in-person learning fall apart.

When COVID-19 becomes widespread enough — at the levels seen in the metro area in the past few months — staffing and numbers of substitute teachers begin to become the weak link in keeping schools running in-person, the superintendents said.

Although schools generally haven't been shown to be “superspreader environments,” keeping students in school becomes difficult at or above roughly 500-700 new cases per 100,000 people in a county in a two-week time frame, said Littleton Public Schools Superintendent Brian Ewert, referencing data from the Metro Denver Partnership for Health. That's an organization led by the six public health agencies serving the seven-county metro area.

Like a “house of cards,” in-person school planning “literally begins to collapse” at that point due to widespread quarantines, Ewert said.

Virtually all students in Denver and surrounding suburbs moved to remote, or online, classes this fall as coronavirus spread mounted.

Superintendents frustrated with the torrent of quarantines in the fall semester heard encouraging news with the recent guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: It provides options for reducing time in quarantine to seven days with a negative test at day five or later, or reducing quarantine to 10 days with no test for those who remain asymptomatic and “are aware of the need for daily symptom monitoring through the full 14 days of the standard quarantine approach,” a report by the Metro Denver Partnership for Health says.

That's expected to allow students and staff to come back to school much quicker if they get tested.

The shortened quarantines may come with slightly higher risk of spreading COVID-19, though. See the introduction and the first chart on the CDC's website for more details.

In early October amid backlash from some metro school superintendents, the state public-health department released relaxed guidelines outlining that in some cases, entire classes or larger groups of students no longer need to quarantine in response to a positive COVID-19 case. But in schools in counties operating with higher levels of coronavirus spread, classes or cohorts of students still were urged to be quarantined.

Under a recent update to the guidance in November, as long as districts adhere to strict protocols, broad quarantines are no longer necessary regardless of the level of virus spread in a county. School districts can now generally use “targeted contact identification,” which entails quarantining those within 6 feet of a person with COVID-19 or symptoms of the disease for 15 minutes or more when both parties are masked. It also requires quarantines when someone was within 12 feet of the individual for 15 minutes or greater when either party was unmasked and indoors.

Those time criteria are cumulative, meaning two 10-minute exposures in a day is equivalent to one 20-minute exposure, according to the guidance.

Mike Johnston, a leader with an initiative called COVIDCheck Colorado that provides access to COVID-19 testing, said COVIDCheck will be partnering with all the districts on the news conference call for testing people out of quarantine. Districts also might have access, to some extent, for preemptive screening for students who aren't in quarantine.

The districts partnering with COVIDCheck include Cherry Creek School District, Denver Public Schools, Jefferson County Public Schools, Aurora Public Schools, Adams 12 Five Star Schools, Littleton Public Schools and Douglas County School District, although it was unclear if other districts not on the call would also be part of the partnership.

Polis at his Dec. 15 news conference said data continues to suggest that schools generally aren't a driver of COVID-19 spread in surrounding communities.

“There's really not been a lot of difference in transmission between communities that have been fully back at school and those that haven't, which gives us further confidence that schools are not a factor in significant community transmission,” Polis said. “Many districts in Colorado have been fully back, others partially back, others not back — really no real difference in transmission levels in those communities.”

Even with the reassuring news, Cherry Creek Superintendent Scott Siegfried emphasized that the broader community's efforts to reduce coronavirus spread are key to ensuring in-person class comes back consistently.

“We have three weeks to collectively ensure that students can return to classrooms,” Siegfried said.


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