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José Ayala administers a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine to Hannah Grebille, 9, at a mobile vaccination clinic on Nov. 22, 2021, in Fort Collins. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

When COVID-19 swept through an elementary, middle and high school in Pagosa Springs in November, many kids in Archuleta School District #50 JT once again had to abandon the classroom to learn at home.

Along with shutting down the high school for five school days amid a string of staff absences, the rural southwest Colorado district, where students are not required to wear masks in school, sent one middle school class into remote learning along with a few classes from the elementary school — where 16 students and one staff member tested positive for COVID.

The district of about 1,600 students, which Superintendent Kym LeBlanc-Esparza said saw more Covid cases in October and November than it did all last year, is among many where cases and outbreaks have been on the rise as the delta variant gains steam across the state. Nearly 40% of COVID cases related to outbreaks in Colorado are at K-12 schools, according to recent data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Of 18,347 cases at 770 locations, 7,157 are tied to elementary, middle and high schools, according to data published Nov. 24.

Coronavirus surges are hitting hardest in K-12 schools in Larimer County, where students are required to wear masks, with 915 reported cases attached to outbreaks. Jefferson County isn’t far behind, with schools facing 820 cases associated with outbreaks, followed by El Paso County, where schools have been affected by 819 cases, CDPHE data shows. Meanwhile, schools in Mesa County have tallied 760 cases related to outbreaks and schools in Weld County have been impacted by 602 cases connected to outbreaks.

It’s a sobering reminder that COVID is still here and has crept its way further into schools at a time communities are experiencing outbreaks and hospitals are already strained with patients. The months ahead weigh on Archuleta County health officials, who worry about the possibility of continuing spread as families gather for holidays.

“We don’t see an end in sight if we continue to increase transmission over the holidays,” said Liane Jollon, executive director of San Juan Basin Public Health, which advises the Archuleta county schools.

Medical professionals like Dr. Sam Dominguez, a pediatric infectious disease expert at Children’s Hospital of Colorado, worry about the spread of the virus only intensifying over winter months as people congregate inside during colder weather and gather to celebrate holidays and as the delta variant has raged across districts.

Larimer County residents fill out paperwork at a mobile vaccination clinic on Nov. 22, 2021, in Fort Collins. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

The delta variant, first detected in Colorado in late April, is more than two times as contagious as previous COVID strains, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“That’s allowing for a lot more spread in schools and a lot more outbreaks,” Dominguez said.

But Dominguez is confident that the vaccine can help prevent further spread of COVID in schools, particularly now that it’s available to children as young as age 5, meaning all students in grades K-12 have access to the vaccine. The more people who get vaccinated, the more chains of transmission are broken, he said, emphasizing that everyone who comes into contact with COVID can stop that chain of transmission and be “part of the solution and not part of the problem.”

Outbreaks in schools are a “symptom” of broader community outbreaks, said Dr. Lisa Miller, a professor of epidemiology and the associate dean for public health practice at the Colorado School of Public Health.

“What goes on in the community is going to be mirrored in schools,” Miller said. “They are part of the community, and they are not somehow isolated from the high levels of spread that are going on elsewhere in the community.”

So it’s not a shock that COVID cases have caused outbreaks in schools as community cases and hospitalizations have been increasing at the same time, she noted.

Miller is careful when it comes to interpreting data related to cases and outbreaks, cautioning that not all of them are actually reported. State and local health officials could be missing outbreaks in the records they keep, she said, particularly in communities with fewer resources to test for COVID and investigate outbreaks. 

It’s also hard to pinpoint the role schools play in spreading the virus, Miller said.

“There’s so many questions that we would love to be able to answer definitively,” she said, “and I just don’t think we can.”

The fight over wearing masks is fierce

The spread of COVID among K-12 students and staff falls in the wake of a tense start to the school year, steeped in emotionally charged debates over mask mandates and divisive school board campaigns. Although health experts staunchly support masks as a way to limit the spread of the virus, schools that require them have sparked outrage among some parents, including in Douglas County, where anti-mask fervor led to a failed recall petition targeting several board members. 

Similar recall efforts were launched against school board members in Boulder Valley School District and Weld RE-4 School District. The mask debate was front and center during school board elections earlier this month, introducing a new level of partisanship into many races.

Local health officials overseeing schools in Archuleta School District say that the majority of cases affecting schools are among unvaccinated staff and students, and they’re seeing more outbreaks and closures in districts that are not requiring masks. 

San Juan Basin Public Health, which also provides guidance to schools in La Plata County, has had a public health advisory this school year encouraging schools to require masks. The largest public school district in its jurisdiction, Durango School District 9-R, has followed that advice, enforcing mask wearing inside schools and even revising its dress code policy to require masks for students indoors.

Archuleta School District opted against a mask mandate this school year.

Inconsistencies in health and safety protocols from district to district and community to community and optional pieces of guidance in place of statewide orders have helped spread the virus, said Chandler Griffin, communications director for San Juan Basin Public Health. Those inconsistencies, along with the highly contagious delta variant and more people letting their guard down amid pandemic fatigue, have contributed to recent surges, Griffin said.

But his department is encouraged by the rate of vaccinations they’ve seen among young kids in their counties so far. As of about a week ago, 26% of children ages 5-11 in La Plata County had received at least one dose while about 12% of kids ages 5-11 in Archuleta County had gotten one dose. The health department is focused on running vaccination clinics and providing outreach to families to try to drive up vaccination rates, Griffin said.

Archuleta School District consulted families and community members before deciding against a districtwide classroom mask mandate. More than 65% of respondents in a survey the district conducted in September and October indicated they did not want a mask mandate, said LeBlanc-Esparza, the district’s superintendent.

The district does, however, require masks in classrooms with special education students to protect medically fragile children, LeBlanc-Esparza said, as well as on school buses to comply with federal law.

Like many superintendents across the state, LeBlanc-Esparza is caught between trying to listen to both the advice of medical professionals and the preferences of parents. About a third of students wear masks to school every day, she said.

“I also have to respect that this is what my community wants,” she said. “Families who believe strongly in wearing masks are sending their kids to school wearing masks.” 

LeBlanc-Esparza remains concerned about the recent outbreaks in her district, with the switch to remote learning slowing down the “momentum of getting back to some sense of normalcy.” 

COVID has also gained speed this year in Poudre School District, located in Fort Collins in Larimer County, said Madeline Noblett, spokeswoman for the district of more than 29,000 students. Last year, it often took at least a few weeks before a second or third case emerged in a class or cohort, she said. Now, she said, additional cases are developing “more rapidly” after the detection of an initial case.

The district — Larimer County’s largest public school district — isn’t exactly sure what’s behind the surge, Noblett said, but officials suspect the delta variant.

“Robust levels of testing and reporting among children” have also contributed to the high number of school-related cases and outbreaks in Larimer County, said Kori Wilford, spokesperson for the Larimer County Department of Health and Environment.

“This reporting and subsequent interventions have allowed us to prioritize in-person learning by quickly identifying transmission and increasing precautions and prevention strategies to reduce subsequent transmission,” Wilford said in an email, adding that the health department interviews families of individuals under 18 who have a positive case and includes “probable cases” in its case counts.

Larimer County residents wait in line at a mobile vaccination clinic on Nov. 22, 2021, in Fort Collins. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

“Our case numbers are likely not directly comparable to the case numbers of other counties that are not using the same practices to identify as many cases and outbreaks as possible,” Wilford said.

But she noted that school-age cases in the county are also likely on the rise as local districts like Poudre School District have seen more cases and pre-outbreaks in the past few weeks. The county’s large number of cases related to outbreaks “partly due to a high number of cases at our large high schools and middle schools where outbreaks were identified early in the semester,” Wilford said.

Resurrection Christian School, located in Loveland, also faced a recent outbreak, with at least 62 Covid cases reported in mid-September. The religious school reversed course and enacted a mask mandate to avoid being closed by local public health officials. Resurrection Christian School has attempted to defy local health orders, arguing that as a private, religious institution, it does not have to follow regulations that are set for schools. An appeal by the school, which insists that masking infringes on its religious beliefs and parent choice, was recently denied by the Larimer County Board of Health.

Poudre School District has tried to keep kids in person as much as possible throughout the school year. Before fall break last week, close to 99% of staff and students were in classrooms. The district has managed to keep quarantines lower this year, despite outbreaks, partially because of a different approach to isolating students and staff. The district and county health department no longer automatically shift all students in a class to remote learning when a positive case is identified in a classroom — a strategy used last year for preschool and elementary school classes, Noblett said.

Quarantines are “an interruption to work and to life and to the experiences that our kids have here, and that continues to be difficult for kids and for their parents,” Noblett said.

The district monitors Covid cases in schools through state designations, she said. Those are pre-outbreak status, in which two to four cases affect a class or cohort, and outbreak status, in which five or more cases impact a class or cohort and targeted contact tracing begins.

The district has also enforced a mask mandate since before the start of the school year, requiring all students, staff and visitors to wear masks inside school buildings. The district’s mask rule mirrors an Oct. 20 health order from the Larimer County Department of Health and Environment requiring people age 3 and older to wear masks in indoor public settings, regardless of whether they are vaccinated.

Requiring children to wear masks in school has been associated with lower rates of COVID. 

But Miller, of the Colorado School of Public Health, pointed out that masks are just one mode of protection to keep kids safe and curb the spread of the virus.

“It is not the end all, be all,” Miller said. “It is one of many protections.”

Others include social distancing, monitoring air filtration and, most effective of all, vaccines, she said.

To ensure families have access to vaccines, Poudre School District is hosting CDPHE’s mobile vaccination clinic at school sites more than 10 times into mid-December. 

Breanna Greville was among parents who brought their kids to Zach Elementary School last week to get their first dose of the vaccine from a mobile vaccination clinic — which is voluntary for families in the district. Greville and her family recently moved to Fort Collins from Australia, and she wanted to get her three young daughters vaccinated the first chance she could. She and her husband were able to get fully vaccinated before leaving Australia, but their children — all under age 12 — weren’t yet eligible.

José Ayala administers a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine to Abby Grebille, 11, at a mobile vaccination clinic on Nov. 22, 2021, in Fort Collins. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

“I wanted to give them an extra bit of protection in the hope that they don’t contract the virus, but if they do then hopefully that will minimize any symptoms that they have,” she said.

Greville has been keeping a close eye on cases in her new community but has found peace of mind with the measures local schools are enforcing — masking, using hand sanitizer and spacing out students.   

The girls each clutched stuffed animals while waiting their turn for the shot outside their neighborhood school, nervous for the pinch. The oldest girl, Abby, a sixth grader at Preston Middle School, was glad to get vaccinated, despite a little bit of pain.

“It’s better than…being, like, really sick,” Abby, 11, said, “whereas if you’re vaccinated you don’t get so sick.”

Sandra Fish has covered government and politics in Iowa, Florida, New Mexico and Colorado. She was a full-time journalism instructor at the University of Colorado for eight years, and her work as appeared on CPR, KUNC, The Washington Post, Roll...

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...