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Colorado’s governor says people should expect coronavirus school closures as in-person learning resumes

Without a uniform state policy, it has been left up to Colorado’s 178 school districts to decide how to proceed during coronavirus. “I don’t want anybody to be surprised in our state when classes, and even schools, do need to be shut down,” Gov. Jared Polis said last week.

Gov. Jared Polis reads to a second grade class in the Cherry Creek School District. Some large school districts, including Aurora Public Schools, are using literacy curriculums that do not comply with state law and must be replaced. (Cherry Creek School District handout)
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Fort Lupton High School. Josephine Hodgkins Leadership Academy in Westminster. Burlington Middle School. 

In-person learning in some Colorado school districts has been underway for just a few weeks, and already the coronavirus has prompted closures, canceled classes and quarantines from the Eastern Plains to the Denver metro area. 

And Gov. Jared Polis says people should expect more of them. 

COVID-19 IN COLORADO

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  • LIVE BLOG: The latest on closures, restrictions and other major updates.
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“I don’t want anybody to be surprised in our state when classes, and even schools, do need to be shut down,” Polis said last week after visiting an elementary school in Aurora that has welcomed students back. “Schools are part of our society. They’re an important part of our society, but they’re not some exception to the rule that somehow is immune to what every other part of a society has to have.”

The Democrat said school shutdowns are no different than the site-based closures of stores, restaurants and offices that have been caused by outbreaks of COVID-19. 

The key, he said, is identifying cases early and preventing a mass spread that could lead to a fatality. 

“The key thing is by acting early and quickly with the protocols that we’ve developed with the health professionals, ideally it would be limited to a few people at a classroom level or at a school level,” he said. “If it goes from one person to three and we act, that’s better than quietly going from one to 10 to 50 to 186 at a school. And when you have that level, you’re very likely to experience loss.”

Without a uniform state policy, it has been left up to Colorado’s 178 school districts to decide how to proceed during coronavirus. Chalkbeat Colorado reports that districts serving about half of the state’s K-12 population — including Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest district — have delayed their return to in-person learning because of the pandemic. 

MORE: A governor eager to reopen, COVID cases declining — and half of Colorado students are online. What happened?

Polis has been adamant that Colorado kids’ education can’t be sacrificed because of coronavirus as he’s prodded for a return to in-person learning. 

“The answer is never: ‘There is no work. There is no school. There is no sports,’” he said. “The answer is: ‘How do you figure out a way to do all of these things that make our lives worth living as safely as possible given that we’re in a pandemic.’”

But at the same time he’s admitted that he’s anxious. 

“Everybody feels fear and is worried. It’s a whole range of emotions that every teacher and parents, too, are having,” he said outside of Village East Community Elementary School in Aurora last week. “I’m a parent. I’m excited that my kids are going back, and, of course, I’m worried a little bit.” 

Gov. Jared Polis has his temperature checked before visiting Village East Community Elementary School on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Some of the recent school closures and student quarantines prompted by positive coronavirus tests include:

  • Hodgkins Leadership Academy in Westminster, where more than 100 students who came into contact with a teacher who tested positive for the disease will move to remote learning for two weeks
  • Fort Lupton High School in Weld County, where positive tests in two students prompted a shutdown of in-person learning for at least two weeks. The school had broken students into cohorts to prevent a schoolwide closure from a positive test, but the two students who tested positive were in different cohorts.
  • Burlington Middle School, where someone tested positive for COVID-19, prompting a delay in in-person learning
  • Soaring Eagles Elementary School in Colorado Springs, which shut down for four days after someone tested positive for coronavirus

Colorado colleges and universities have also been struggling to contain the virus. A student who tested positive at Colorado College prompted the quarantine of an entire dorm. The University of Colorado Boulder on Saturday reported 16 cases among 2,425 students tested between Aug. 17 and 21. Fort Lewis College in Durango asked seven people to isolate after widespread testing on its campus. 

The closures and positive tests highlight just how difficult it is to contain the virus in a school setting. 

MORE: What it’s like for the 100-plus Colorado College students stuck in their dorm after a peer tested positive for coronavirus

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Village East Community Elementary School, where Polis visited last week, is part of the Cherry Creek School District which is resuming in-person learning gradually. Last week, second graders were taking classes. 

Polis read to a classroom of students who were clad in masks as he and two state lawmakers toured the school to see how in-person learning is going so far. 

Cherry Creek School District schools have worked hard to ensure best practices are in place to reduce the likelihood of an outbreak, Superintendent Scott Siegfried said. That includes plans for robust testing.

“We were fortunate, before school started, to identify six asymptomatic positive tests in adults and keep them out of schools,” he said. “That’s out of nearly 5,000 tests that we’ve run so far.”

MORE: Aurora will offer its 4,000 teachers two coronavirus tests a month come fall. Will other school districts follow?

Dr. John Douglas, who leads the Tri-County Health Department overseeing Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties, said no one should be surprised by school closures. 

“I think the proof in the pudding is to whether or not one has ongoing transmission after that,” he said. “I think that the protocols have been set up right now to be really conservative.” 

Both Douglas and Polis said Colorado’s now-low coronavirus transmission rates will help keep things under control.

Masked children as Gov. Jared Polis visits a second grade class in Aurora. (Cherry Creek School District handout)

“That is really making it a little easier, I think,” Polis said. “Some of these states have 10 times (greater) the spread relative to their population. You can imagine what that means is 10 times the likelihood of a school outbreak.”

McDonald said the broader community can help keep schools open and operating safely by adhering to social distancing protocols and wearing masks. 

“If we stay low,” he said of Colorado’s coronavirus transmission rate, “our schools and other entities benefit.”

Updated on Monday, Aug. 30, at 1:47 p.m.: This story has been updated to correct the name of the executive director of Tri-County Public Health. He is Dr. John Douglas.

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