Cherry Creek changing virus criteria to guide school district closures


CENTENNIAL | The Cherry Creek School District will look into using COVID-19 infection rates among teachers and students as a metric for school safety instead of local hospitalization rates, Superintendent Scott Siegfried said at Monday night’s board of education meeting.

The meeting was the first since the beginning of the school year, and Siegfried updated the board on how the school year is going and some changes the district is looking into making.

He said that so far having students return to school during the pandemic crisis has been a “great success.” He said there have been some COVID-19 cases in the district requiring students to quarantine, but it’s been “nothing that we didn’t expect” and the vast majority of students have been able to remain in schools.

As of Tuesday, 14 students and four staff members have tested positive for COVID-19. That’s resulted in 415 students and 36 staff members have been required to quarantine. 27 schools have been affected by the quarantines, including Cherry Creek High School, Grandview High School and Cherry Hills Village Elementary. The reported COVID-19 cases mean designated classes, students and staff are required to continue classes virtually, for at least two weeks.

Many more students were forced to attend classes on-line after the infections. A new incident at Cherry Creek High School forced about 1,600 students to leave the classroom for at least two weeks.

Working with the Tri-County Health Department, the district created a scale using four metrics to determine whether students and teachers should be in schools or holding classes remotely. The district posts the custom rating every day on the web.

The four metrics currently are hospitalizations, daily COVID-19 cases, 14-day incidence rates and percent of positive tests in Arapahoe County. The number determined to reflect school safety from the virus is based on an eight-point scale, with eight being the safest. Each metric is rated either “stable,” “sustained increase” or “uncontrolled.” At four points or below, the schools transition to remote learning.

The board has been working with the Cherry Creek teacher’s union to explore phasing out the hospitalization metric, since it is not as closely related to school safety, Siegfried said. Instead, the district will measure rates of positivity for COVID-19 among Cherry Creek staff, and incidence rates among students.

“As we started to see cases of COVID pop up we really felt like the hospitalization rate was not an accurate measurement,” Cherry Creek Education Association President Kasey Ellis told the Sentinel.

The district will pilot the concepts over the next month to determine whether they are a better fit for the daily measurement, Siegfried said.

All Cherry Creek employees are eligible for free COVID-19 tests either monthly or bimonthly depending on their roles. The district will use the test to determine their positivity rates. Less than 1% positivity will be considered stable, between 1% and 1.5% will be tabbed as a sustained increase, and above 1.5% positive testing will be uncontrolled.

For students, 0.25% positive will be stable, between 0.25% to 0.5% will be a sustained increase and over 0.5% will be uncontrolled. Cases among students are tracked by contact tracers who work for the district.

With the two new measures, the metric will shift to a 10-point scale, with 10 being the safest indication. Siegfried said another change the district is exploring is having the middle number, five, be bidirectional, and will consult with Tri-County to determine whether school should remain open or closed depending on what the county’s data looks like if the district is at that level.

So far, no students or staff has who had to quarantine because of exposure to someone who tested positive for COVID-19 has themselves contracted the virus, Siegfried said.

That demonstrates that “the multiple overlapping safety strategies in the Cherry Creek School District are working,” he said.

Dr. John Douglas, director of the Tri-County health department, said he thinks that the district’s decision to make the change makes sense because the new metrics are more closely related to school safety than hospitalizations.

“All of these are at some level somewhat arbitrary,” Douglas said of the metrics.

Siegfried voiced some frustrations with Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment regulations, saying that the district is not able to bring secondary students back to school five days a week because the department requires older students to be six feet apart in classrooms at all times.

“Until that changes, we will be hybrid because schools are not built for kids to be distanced,” he said.

Students in grades K-5 are required to be spaced three feet apart in classrooms, while older students are required to be six feet apart. Douglas said that’s because according to research, younger people don’t expel the respiratory droplets that transmit COVID-19 as far because their lungs have less force.

Three feet of distance is not a magic number, he said, but it’s a guideline based on the best understanding scientists have of the virus so far. Once students get to be 13 or 14, they start to transmit more like adults, Douglas said.

“The more distance we have the better,” he said.

Douglas also said that the requirement that every student who was in a class with someone who tests positive for COVID-19 quarantines, even if they were never within six feet of the sick student, is “overburdensome,” and he hopes that the district will reconsider.

In regards to fall sports, Siegfried said that if the CDPHE determines that it is safe and the CHSAA votes to have a season, the district will compete. Having a season could be a positive for the district because it would give students motivation to be responsible so that they can participate, he said.

CCSD teams have participated in the four fall sports that were approved by the Colorado High School Activities Association — softball, cross country, boys tennis and boys golf — but it is unknown if the latest quarantine will have an effect on the tennis and golf teams, which are both set for regional competitions in the next week.

Programs in the district have also been supportive of the recent push for CHSAA to reinstate football and potentially other fall sports. A decision on the fate of those is expected from CHSAA and Gov. Jared Polis’ office as soon as Wednesday.

“Our kids need purpose,” he said.

School board president Karen Fisher told the Sentinel that Siegfried met with the board on Friday to go over the metrics and they support the change.

“It was pretty unanimous among the board that hospitalizations just really weren’t as meaningful” of a metric, she said.

“It feels like this could better inform all of our community members about what’s going on with the virus in our school buildings.”

The next school board meeting will be held on Monday, Oct. 5, as the second Monday of the month is over fall break.

— Courtney Oakes contributed to this report