During a December 15 update regarding the state's fight against COVID-19, Governor Jared Polis and several high-powered educators teased the release of "Road Map to In-Person Learning" — guidance for schools that have gone remote during the pandemic on how to safely reopen classrooms after the first of the year, based on the recommendations of a Polis-appointed task force.
Polis worked hard to make those recommendations seem innovative, touting their "layered" approach, but he offered few details — and those he mentioned didn't seem especially groundbreaking. At one point, for instance, he suggested that ventilation could be improved by opening a window.
Was this simply an example of dressing up previous best practices in different clothing? Or was something fresh actually happening?
After the plan was released following Polis's press conference, we put these questions to a pair of Denver area educators — one working in the public sector at a facility that has continued to have limited in-person attendance, the other at a private school whose students are on site for a full-day schedule. According to these two, the road map (accessible below, following a governor's office summary of its main points) contains little that's actually new; while some of the suggestions sound good, they're very difficult to apply in real-world academic settings.
During his December 15 remarks, Polis mentioned the importance of "on-site testing for anybody who is symptomatic. If little Johnny has a runny nose? Instant test. We have plenty of supplies to do that." But that doesn't mean the testing will be done at the school itself. The road map makes it clear that such analyses must be done at free community testing sites — and parents and students will have to find the closest one and get there on their own.
Another potential shift involves contact tracing, which has been especially difficult for under-resourced schools. The road map pledges support of "additional capacity for contact tracing for schools, which may include contact tracing resources at the State level." If that assistance is available, it would indeed be a positive development, the educators say. But again, specifics are few.
Much of the road map is devoted to arguments stressing the importance of in-person education. While the educators agree with that emphasis, they found accompanying material about how safe school settings are for students and teaches alike — a frequent Polis refrain — considerably less persuasive. A study by the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control includes the following concession: "A number of SARS-CoV-2 seroprevalence studies have been conducted in the general population. The methodology used in these studies was mainly a random household sampling, while others used convenience samples (e.g. leftover sera). When extrapolating seroprevalence results for the young age group (0-18 years), the actual denominators for this population were not always shown in detail, or included very small sample sizes. This is a limitation for the current synthesis and interpretation."
Likewise, instructions about cohorting — keeping classrooms of kids separate from the school population as a whole, so that a positive case will result in smaller numbers of pupils being quarantined — struck both of the educators as problematic when it comes to teachers. For example, specialists such as gym teachers interact with multiple groups, not just one, and have the potential of spreading an infection to any and all of the cohorts they visit — and yet education would suffer if special classes were canceled entirely.
Here's the governor's office summary, followed by links to the road map and two additional documents.
Increasing trust and transparency through:
• Regular communication with school districts, educators, and parents about disease transmission, emerging resources, and best practices.
• Encouraging counties to commit to prioritize in-person learning by considering suspending in-person extracurricular and recreational activities that interfere with cohorting once a county reaches Orange, Red, or Purple on the Dial.
• Ensuring in-person, school sponsored activities such as athletics, music, art, and theatre should only occur once full time or hybrid in-person learning is successfully occurring with minimal disruptions.
• Providing school data dashboards that are publicly available to ensure public health case and outbreak data is fully transparent and accessible to the public.
• Encouraging school districts and schools to prioritize full-time in-person education for the most vulnerable groups, including students with disabilities, students who are low-income, English language learners, students without access to the internet, students experiencing homelessness or in foster care, and children of frontline workers.
Preventing and protecting students, families, educators, and staff through:
• Continuing to support the CDC, CDPHE, and CDE strong recommendation for all children over the age of 3 to wear a mask.
• Because teaching requires constant talking, some educators may prefer a surgical or cloth mask instead of a KN95 mask. The state can continue to provide high quality medical, surgical, or other masks as appropriate for teachers, in-school health care providers, and other members of the school community for different operational or educational needs.
• Creating evidence-based protocols and supplementary resources for schools to implement symptom screening in the home setting, as recommended by the CDC as well as strategies for in-school screening when home screening is incomplete.
• Supporting effective cohorting models and protocols to minimize classroom disruptions, and continue to research more effective ways to minimize disruptions from quarantines.
• Supporting additional staffing to ensure schools can operate during staff quarantine periods.
• Creating resources and tools to improve ventilation in learning spaces including the use of outdoor spaces and outside facing windows remaining open in classrooms.
• Encouraging hand washing hygiene, cleaning, and disinfecting with appropriate products known to be effective against SARS-CoV-2.
• Supporting effective models for physical distancing in classrooms.
Increasing access to testing and vaccines through:
• Continuing to provide resources for testing, particularly in the highest viral prevalence communities such as those counties in Red or Purple, as well as those that have greater challenges in accessing testing. This should include offering regular screening for educators and staff interested, for symptomatic individuals that need a diagnostic test, and for individuals who do not have symptoms but have been quarantined after an exposure.
• Supporting additional capacity for contact tracing for schools, which may include contact tracing resources at the State level.
• Promoting partnerships between the medical and public health community and school districts to help not just provide testing materials, but also the personnel to administer and manage testing programs and contact tracing when positive cases are identified. Facilitate access to in-person or virtual medical evaluation for ill students, teachers, and staff.
• Continuing to prioritize educators and school staff in the phased vaccination prioritization.
• Providing clear messaging on the vaccine and its safety, effectiveness, and importance to our return to normalcy, including sharing talking points for schools to share with parents and their communities. This messaging should be in Spanish and other languages common in Colorado.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.