After months of online learning, districts across the Denver metro area plan a return to the classroom in January

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Precautionary COVID-19 signage is affixed to the front entrance of North Middle School, Oct. 27, 2020.
Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

AURORA | Aurora Public Schools and the Cherry Creek School District are joining districts across the Denver metro area in planning a return to in-person learning in January, saying that now that they’ve had more time to learn how COVID-19 affects schools they can better keep students safe.

Cherry Creek had students in classrooms for 11 weeks before going remote through the end of first semester after Adams and Arapahoe County experienced a surge in COVID-19 cases in November. APS began remotely and only had students in the classroom for a week before going online again.

Both districts previously relied on internal decision models that used local COVID-19 health data and other metrics to calculate whether or not schools should be open. Now, local health officials are saying that the models used in the first semester were too conservative and it’s still possible for schools to be open safely if a high level of the virus is circulating in the community.

On Tuesday, a group of metro Denver superintendents held a press conference with Bill Burman, co-chair of the Metro Denver Partnership for Health.

By collecting on data from the fall, Burman said that the partnership has found that schools are affected by community transmission but don’t drive community transmission.

“We have very good data that show that schools are definitely affected by community transmission, but the majority of cases are acquired in the home, not in the school,” Burman said.

Additionally, the partnership found that younger children are at a lower risk for transmitting the virus and that the overlapping safety strategies schools have been using, such as quarantining, cohorting and mask wearing, appear to be working.

Metrics that were previously thought to be about school safety have turned out to be more reliable metrics for whether it is logistically possible to keep schools open, Burman said. For instance, once the community transmission rate of COVID-19 reaches 500 to 750 per 100,000 people, it becomes much more difficult to keep schools operational.

Based on its findings, the partnership released guidelines saying that reopening schools should be a public health priority for the Denver metro area, especially for the youngest students, who benefit the most from in-person education and are at the lowest transmission risk.

That closely follows guidance from the state, which released a roadmap back to in-person learning developed by Colorado’s back to school working group.

“We believe it is critically important for the health of our children, communities, and state that we create the conditions for students to return to in-person learning in school,” the roadmap stated. “Research has shown that when the right precautions are taken by parents, students, schools, and the community as a whole, schools are relatively low-risk environments for children and educators.”

One thing state and local officials aren’t as eye-to-eye on is how teachers should be prioritized in the state’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution. Colorado currently has three stages of vaccine distribution, with healthcare workers, staff and residents of long-term care facilities and first responders in stage one. Essential workers, including teachers, are in stage two.

Some educators are advocating for teachers to be moved up to group B of stage one or placed at the very top of stage two. At the APS school board’s Dec. 15 meeting, Tri-County Health Department executive director Dr. John Douglas said he believes that teachers and school staff should be given a higher priority.

The governor’s office has so far declined to change the order, and spokesperson Conor Cahill said that the governor believes that the state has a moral imperative to prioritize the elderly, those in care facilities and frontline healthcare workers, as they are at greatest risk.

Cherry Creek plans to begin the semester with three days of remote learning from Jan. 6 to Jan. 8 to give a buffer week in between the holidays for cases to arise. After that, the district has tentatively planned to bring students back to the classroom. on Jan. 11.

If the community incidence rate is below 500 per 100,000 on Jan. 4, it will have full in-person learning for elementary students and hybrid learning for secondary students. If the incidence rate is higher than that, Superintendent Scott Siegfried will make a decision on what to do. That could include still bringing all students back if it looks like the incidence rate is trending down, only bringing back elementary students, or keeping all students completely remote.

Arapahoe County’s 14-day incidence rate is currently on a downward trend, beginning the week at 891 per 100,000 and ending at 795. Whether travel over Christmas and New Year’s Eve will lead to another spike remains to be seen. However, state epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy said Friday that Colorado avoided seeing a spike over Thanksgiving, an encouraging sign.

Cherry Creek will begin offering free testing to students in January with the goal of identifying asymptomatic COVID-19 cases and keeping transmission down. The saliva tests will be offered through COVIDCheck Colorado, and should provide results within 24 hours.

The tests will not be mandatory and students must have parental permission. The district is also changing its quarantine procedures, and will also allow students in quarantine to return to the classroom after seven days if they receive a negative COVID-19 test.

Aurora Public Schools has a slightly more cautious reopening plan, and will spend the first week of the semester fully remote and then transition to a hybrid model the week of Jan. 19, with half the students on campus and half online at a time. The APS school board was previously very hesitant to bring students back to the classroom, but at the latest board meeting voiced cautious optimism for the plan.

“Our kids need to be in school, simply put,” director Marques Ivey said.

He said he understands the mixed feelings that some in the district have about returning, and that the ultimate goal is to make sure that students, teachers and staff all feel safe.

“I’m not going to play Russian roulette with you all’s children and I’m not going to play Russian roulette with my children,” he said.

The district will finalize its plans by Jan. 4, APS Superintendent Rico Munn told families in a message sent out Friday. He told The Sentinel he is hopeful about the upcoming semester.

“I work for kids,” Munn said. “I’m always optimistic.”

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