How Close Is Colorado to Shutting Down Schools Over Outbreak Blitz?

Westminster High School is among the K-12 institutions in Colorado with an active COVID-19 outbreak investigation.
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Westminster High School is among the K-12 institutions in Colorado with an active COVID-19 outbreak investigation.
The worsening COVID-19 crisis in Colorado is a major topic of conversation among teachers across the state.

In conversations from online forums shared with Westword, a growing number of educators say they believe the timing of the alarming rise in novel coronavirus case counts, which began shortly after schools and colleges reopened for in-person instruction this fall, isn't coincidental. Moreover, many see Governor Jared Polis's reluctance to order a switch back to remote-only learning even as he's urging Coloradans to cancel social plans with those outside their household for the next few weeks as completely contradictory. After all, doesn't a random group of kids and instructors hanging out together in a single room for hours every day fit the definition of a risky gathering during a pandemic?

That's not how the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment sees the situation. In a Q&A with Westword about the role of schools in the statistical spikes, the department makes it clear that keeping such institutions open, and kids physically in them, is a major priority of the Polis administration.

The numbers from the latest CDPHE outbreaks report, made public on November 4, are undeniably worrisome. Right now, there are 74 active COVID-19 investigations at K-12 schools in Colorado — the most ever. On top of that, schools across the metro area and beyond are facing unprecedented staff shortages because teachers who've been in close contact with people who've tested positive must quarantine. Such scenarios are among the reasons that the Cherry Creek School District opted to move entirely online last week.

In addition, active outbreak investigations are ongoing at the University of Colorado Boulder, Colorado State University, the University of Denver, CU's Anschutz Medical Campus, Regis University, the Colorado School of Mines, Colorado College and assorted locations at the University of Northern Colorado. There are also inquiries involving athletic teams at Colorado Mesa University, Metropolitan State University of Denver, CSU Pueblo and Northeastern Junior College, plus individual programs at Pikes Peak Community College, Red Rocks Community College and Trinidad State Junior College.

Still, the CDPHE isn't ready to pull the plug yet on in-school learning. Here's our Q&A with the department on the topic, conducted through email:

Westword: Some teachers and parents with whom we've spoken have noted that the increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations began shortly after in-person instruction began again at elementary, secondary and post-secondary schools. Is there data establishing a link between these increases and in-person instruction at elementary and secondary schools, in addition to the already documented connection with returning college students?

CDPHE: COVID-19 is spreading exponentially throughout Colorado. Cases are increasing at a rapid pace, and we are concerned with so many contagious people that are asymptomatic. We are seeing an increase in cases across all age groups. We understand that Coloradans are tired of COVID-19, but it’s not tired of us. Many have let their guard down.

Governor Polis has called for an end to gatherings of individuals from different households for the next few weeks — but even though in-person schooling would seem to fit this description, the governor has essentially exempted classroom instruction from these recommendations. Why are schools being exempted from this advice?

Schools have been designated as critical businesses in the public-health order, which means they can continue to operate even in Level Red. We included schools as critical businesses in the latest public-health order to clarify that local districts have the ability to determine how to structure the format of education based on local factors.

While we want to do everything we can to slow disease transmission, we must also acknowledge the importance of providing mental health support, free meals and educational opportunities for our students. We have provided extensive guidance for schools that want to remain open while limiting the spread of COVID-19.

Even though schools have separate safety protocols that are seen as helping to prevent greater spread of the virus, are you seeing any data to suggest that cases and hospitalizations linked to in-person education are rising anyhow?

Our extensive school guidance offers high-level safety precautions based on the latest science to protect teachers and students. These guidelines make it so we can slow the spread of COVID-19, but there is some level of risk associated with any interactions.

Can safety protocols at schools be tightened, or would a return to remote-only learning be the best approach to getting the virus under control?

The updated dial capacity chart does have remote learning suggested and/or very limited in-person learning when necessary. However, local districts can make determinations on how to structure the format of education based on local factors. Critical businesses must take all steps possible to comply with the physical distancing requirements. You can read the specific language about schools on page 37 of the public-health order.

Right now, there are active outbreaks at dozens of schools across the state, and many more facilities are dealing with staff shortages because potentially exposed teachers must quarantine. Are the number of outbreaks and quarantine scenarios concerning, or are they within levels anticipated by officials and considered controllable?

Every outbreak is concerning and is investigated by CDPHE and local public-health agencies. We are committed to working with local authorities to determine what mitigation measures are most appropriate for each county based on their unique circumstances.

Should data continue to worsen, is a statewide order to return to remote-only learning on the table?

Any actions taken will continue to be guided by the best available science and what is in the best interests of the health of Coloradans. As we have done throughout the pandemic, we will work with local public-health agencies to identify the solutions most appropriate to each county’s scenario, as many of our counties are experiencing this virus in different ways.

Is all-remote learning considered a possibility that should be put off as long as possible and should only be utilized if other methods prove ineffective?

Any consideration of further statewide orders can be prevented right now if more Coloradans do everything they can to protect their community, including wearing masks, properly distancing a minimum of six feet, and canceling social gatherings with anyone outside of their own household.