A tough assignment - Jeffco schools keeping in-person learning going for now

Rising COVID-19 numbers forcing cohort quarantines and 24-hour deep cleans at majority of school sites

Paul Albani-Burgio and Bob Wooley
palbaniburgio@coloradocommunitymedia.com and bwooley@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 11/11/20

With COVID-19 case counts continuing to spike in Jefferson County, attention is returning to Jefferson County Public Schools, which is continuing in-person learning — for now — as the district …

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A tough assignment - Jeffco schools keeping in-person learning going for now

Rising COVID-19 numbers forcing cohort quarantines and 24-hour deep cleans at majority of school sites

Posted

UPDATE: The Jeffco Public Schools Board of Education held a study session on the topic of COVID-19 on Nov. 11. A moving of grades 6-12 to full remote learning was discussed, though no official decision was made at that time. Also on Nov. 11, the Jefferson County Education Association (teachers union) released a formal statement, calling on the district to move to full-remote status.

With COVID-19 case counts continuing to spike in Jefferson County, attention is returning to Jefferson County Public Schools, which is continuing in-person learning — for now — as the district sees its own rise in cases among students and staff.

On Nov. 2. the district set a new record, announcing 59 newly confirmed cases among district staff and students in one day. In all, the district reported 183 new cases just last week, Jeffco’s worst week since it started tracking the COVID-19 status on all students and staff at the end of August.

But while there’s no doubt cases are rising within the district, county public experts say current case and transmission data does not suggest the schools themselves have been a major source of transmission within the county. Instead, they say data suggests that the spike in district cases is reflective of “general increased community transmission within Jefferson County.”

“This is a concern not just for schools, but every population in the county,” said Melanie Rogers, an infectious diseases epidemiologist for JCPH, in an email responding to questions from Colorado Community Media. “The cases that are seen in schools primarily represent isolated cases; e.g., just one student in a class who is ill, vs. widespread outbreaks.”

According to Rogers, most of the confirmed outbreaks in Jeffco Public Schools have involved less than 5 students.

“Jeffco Public Schools respond rapidly when a case is identified in order to quarantine close contacts and keep the spread contained and provide additional cleaning and disinfecting in the school environments,” said Rogers,

According to JCPH spokeswoman Ashley Sever, Rogers’ primary role in the county Office of Pandemic Response is working with the schools on COVID-19-related matters. However, Rogers works with about half a dozen other staff at JCPH, including members of the executive team and Christine Billings, who leads the office.

“Reversing the trend of increased cases in schools will take the collective effort of everyone in the county,” she added.

The gameplan

Given the relative lack of spread within schools, county health and government officials maintain that it is their goal to make sure in-person learning can continue as they implement new strategies, including a new Public Health Order, aimed at reducing spread within the county.

During an Oct. 27 discussion of the county’s plans to mitigate the rise in cases, JCPH Executive Director Jody Erwin told the Jeffco commissioners that JCPH had been in talks with the district about how to do just that.

“We really want to avoid changing those learning models between now and the end of the semester or trimester,” said Erwin. “We had a great conversation with them last night where we thought some of the things they are trying to do align with what we are trying to do with the mitigation plan.

Margaret Huffman, the director of community health services at JCPH, also added that it “keeping kids in school is so foundational not only for them but also for our families to respond appropriately to this pandemic.”

But while the county wants to keep students going to school, Rogers said the county moving to Level 3 “Orange” on the state’s pandemic ranking dial — which went into effective Nov. 9 — would affect the schools and school activities.

The county’s change to Level Orange on the Safer-at-Home dial should be seen as a call to action for everyone in the community according to recent comments from Julie Wilken, Director, Department of Health Services for Jeffco Schools.

In an email sent to parents on Nov. 3, Interim Superintendent Kristopher Schuh said the district would attempt to maintain the learning models that are currently in place even under Level Orange. Schuh said the district would be able to do so as long as a mandate requiring a move to online learning did not come from Gov. Jared Polis as districts are decisions about in-person and remote operations have otherwise been left to individual districts.

“We track both Jefferson County and our district’s COVID-19 case data each day,” he wrote. “If there were a significant change, especially in Jeffco Public Schools data, then a short-term switch to remote learning would be considered.”

Even a move to a Stay At Home order — the most severe rating the state can give a county — would not necessarily require a move to 100% remote learning, Schuh wrote, noting that “Jefferson is large, and the data may not necessarily reflect what is happening in our schools. However, Schuh said the district would consider a move “if the rate of COVID-19 transmission and outbreaks within schools became unmanageable due to illness, quarantines and staffing shortages.”

But he added: If the district’s positive case rate continues to be manageable, we will do our best to continue to have in-person learning in some form as long as it is safe to do so.

Controlled quarantines

In recent days and weeks many surrounding districts, including Westminster and Cherry Creek, have moved at least temporarily to 100% distance learning, citing rising community COVID-19 cases. In Jeffco, the approach has been to close schools for a 24-hour period of deep cleaning, or in more sever situations, institute a 14-day closure of the school to quarantine all students. So far, such measures have resulted in several schools experiencing the 14-day shutdown, but the district itself has been able to maintain the rest of its in-person learning.

Most recently, Arvada West High School closed for all in-person learning Tuesday of this week for a deep clean. The school is facing a dozen confirmed cases.

According to Rogers, all decisions about what to do when a school learns of an exposure on campus are made in accordance with CDPHE’s guidance for schools. However, she said JCPH will provide assistance if a school needs help interpreting that guidance.

As the district has confirmed COVID-19 cases(even among remote-only learners), they have been listed on the district website, as part of the COVID-19 Case Count Dashboard.

As of Nov. 6, there were 328 active cases, with 79 new cases recorded on Nov. 4. According to Cameron Bell, the districts executive director of media relations and public information.

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