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Colorado issues guidance on when coronavirus should prompt a school closure as governor calls in-person learning “reasonably safe”

The guidance comes as Gov. Jared Polis says it’s “reasonably safe” for children to return to schools for in-person learning. Polis said his own children will be returning to classes.

Jose Garcia cleans a wall at Bruce Randolph School on Thursday, March 19, 2020. (Pool photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)
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Schools with coronavirus outbreaks in five or more classrooms will close for at least 10 days under new guidance released Thursday by the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment.

The guidance, focused on how school districts can effectively respond to a COVID-19 outbreak, also recommends a school close if 10 or more students, teachers or staff members who are not related test positive for COVID-19 within 14 days.

The CDPHE’s guidelines fall as Colorado’s 178 school districts race to refine their plans for the fall semester, with a number of districts — including Denver Public Schools, Aurora Public Schools and Adams County School District 14 — delaying their start dates. Those three districts also have pushed the start to in-person instruction to the second quarter of the school year.

COVID-19 IN COLORADO

The latest from the coronavirus outbreak in Colorado:

  • LIVE BLOG: The latest on closures, restrictions and other major updates.
  • MAP: Cases and deaths in Colorado.
  • TESTINGHere’s where to find a community testing site. The state is now encouraging anyone with symptoms to get tested.
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  • STORYColorado coronavirus cases are rising, especially among people under 18, as hospitalizations spike as well

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Other districts, including Harrison School District 2 and Alamosa School District, No. Re-11J, are opting for a return to in-person instruction, with a remote option for those families not comfortable sending their children back to classrooms. Other districts, like Douglas County School District, are pursuing a hybrid model, with a combination of in-person and online instruction.

The guidance also coincides with Gov. Jared Polis declaring Colorado communities are safe enough to reopen schools — more so than in other states.

“I think all the work Coloradans have put in to keep our viral transmission rates low is why it’s safer to open schools in Colorado,” Polis said during a media conference on Thursday. “It is reasonably safe. Many schools are opening.”

“I think the hard work of Coloradans has led to an environment where, unlike parts of Texas, much of Florida, it’s reasonably safe to open schools,” he said. “Just as it’s reasonably safe to go to a grocery store. It’s reasonably safe to go to work.”

His kids will be going back to school.

From left to right Jose Garcia, Mary Garibay, Shelby Gallegos and Lenora Vallejos clean a classroom at Bruce Randolph School on Thursday, March 19, 2020. (Pool photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

CDPHE’s guidance trails school safety guidance issued by Colorado health and education officials earlier this month. Education Commissioner Katy Anthes and other state officials are strongly encouraging districts to pursue cohorting — keeping groups of students together and avoiding interaction among them — along with other protocols, such as requiring that all students 11 and older be required to wear masks.

The new guidance from CDPHE also prods schools to close when “a large number” of students, teachers and staff are absent. That number is defined by the school or district.

CDPHE defines an outbreak as two or more students, teachers or staff members from different households having positive COVID-19 cases occurring within 14 days in one classroom or cohort.

A schoolwide outbreak constitutes two or more classrooms or cohorts experiencing an outbreak within 14 days. In schools that don’t use cohorting, a schoolwide outbreak is defined as two or more people from different households testing positive within 14 days. Additionally, an outbreak occurs when at least 10 students and staff members who are not related have confirmed cases within 14 days.

The guidance suggests schools close a classroom or cohort that is affected by a single confirmed or likely infection with all of those from that group quarantining for 14 days.

Before a school can reopen to students, teachers and staff after an outbreak, additional time must be spent cleaning. 

DENVER, CO – MARCH 19: Jose Garcia cleans the windows of a classroom at Bruce Randolph School on Thursday, March 19, 2020. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

Schools are lawfully required to report any confirmed or suspected outbreaks within four hours to CDPHE or their local public health agency.

CDPHE also defines what a suspected outbreak looks like. This is when an individual tests positive and one or more people from different homes in the same classroom or cohort likely have the virus, the guidelines explain. A suspected outbreak may also entail one person testing positive in two or more classrooms, or at least 10% of a school being absent for any reason.

A staff outbreak is defined as when two or more teachers or staff who work closely in a school have confirmed cases within 14 days.

Whenever students, teachers or staff have confirmed or suspected cases of the virus, CDPHE directs them to isolate, typically for 10 days after the start of symptoms. Those with symptoms should be tested, and people who have crossed paths with anyone who has or is suspected to have the virus should isolate for 14 days and wait until symptoms begin or wait seven days before getting tested. 

The guidelines do not suggest schoolwide testing is essential, but they do promote other health and safety precautions, such as wearing masks, social distancing and cohorting. They also recommend schools practice preventive strategies for other respiratory infections, including sharing information about the seasonal flu and holding a vaccination clinic, cleaning surfaces and washing hands, and educating school communities about staying home when ill.


Colorado Sun staff writer Jesse Paul contributed to this report.

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