Cherry Creek schools chief announces ambitious plan to reopen classrooms in January

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A mask on the Smoky Hill High School mascot earlier in the school year, just as students returned to classes. The district is working to find a way to be certain to reopen classrooms after the winter break. SENTINEL COLORADO FILE PHOTO

GREENWOOD VILLAGE | The Cherry Creek School District outlined an ambitious plan to bring students back to in-person learning next semester that still hinges on community transmission rates of COVID-19 returning to manageable levels.

The district had students in classrooms for 11 weeks this fall before rising COVID-19 case rates across the Denver metro area compelled it to return to remote learning for the rest of the semester. District Superintendent Scott Siegfried has repeatedly said that he wants to bring students back to in-person learning as soon as realistically possible, and at the board’s Monday night meeting provided an outline for how to bring students back as early as Jan. 11. 

Based on data from the fall semester, schools are not a significant transmitter of COVID-19, Siegfried said. Of the 3,927 students and 553 staff members who had to quarantine because of close contact with an infected person, only 16 students and 10 staff members are known to have contracted COVID-19 while in quarantine.

In an email to The Sentinel, Tri-County Health Department representative Mellissa Sager supported Siegfried’s statement, saying that the department believes that schools are safe for in-person learning as long as districts are adhering to the guidance on how to handle COVID cases.

“We do believe the safety measures our schools are using are working and we have not found our schools to be a significant source of transmission,” she said.

The data is similar for a contingent of 35 Colorado school districts that shared information, he said. Out of over 41,026 students and 7,602 employees that quarantined across the districts, only 166 students and 144 staff members tested positive in quarantine.

That “starts to paint the picture that the multiple overlapping safety strategies we have in schools do work,” Siegfried said.

The district’s data also showed that, as predicted early in the pandemic, younger students contracted COVID-19 at lower rates, he said.

Ultimately, what led the district to return to remote learning was the fact that it could no longer maintain in-person learning with the skyrocketing rate of COVID-19 in the community, Siegfried said. A key takeaway from the data was that what were initially developed as school safety measures functioned more as measures of operational viability.

The district found that once the 14-day community incidence rate of COVID-19 in Arapahoe County reached 500 per 100,000 people, it became very difficult to maintain in-person learning. However, with more safety strategies in place he believes that it is possible for schools to be open at a higher rate.

To help facilitate that, the district will partner with COVIDCheck Colorado to offer free COVID testing to district students beginning on Jan. 5, Siegfried said. If students regularly get tested, he hopes that more asymptomatic cases will be identified, reducing the level of transmissions.

Students will not be required to be tested, and they will need parental permission.

“It truly is about a commitment to the greater good,” Siegfried said.

As per updated guidance from the CDC, students and staff who are in quarantine will be able to take a COVID test after five days and if it comes back negative can return to the classroom after seven days of quarantine. Along with using targeted quarantining in high schools, Siegfried said he hopes that will cut back on having large numbers of students and faculty out of the classroom.

The district will plan to begin the semester with three days of remote learning from Jan. 6 to 8 to give a buffer week in between the holidays for cases to arise. After that, the district will tentatively plan 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, 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 Tuesday 14-day incidence rate is 845.7 per 100,000, down from 981 on Monday, and it has been decreasing from a high of over 1,000 in November. Siegfried said he is hopeful that it will continue to go down. Whether the Christmas holidays will lead to another spike in cases remains to be seen.

The district will also strongly advocate for teachers to be placed at the top of the priority list to be vaccinated in phase two of Colorado’s vaccine rollout, which covers essential workers.

Kasey Ellis, president of the Cherry Creek Education Association, said that the union worked with Siegfried on the plan and believes that it will help facilitate a safe return to in-person learning. Testing of students was something that teachers had been asking for, Ellis said, and the union also advocated for the first week to be remote to provide more of a buffer from the holidays.

On Tuesday, Siegfried and a group of other superintendents from the Denver metro area held a press conference to discuss their back-to-school plans along with Bill Burman, co-chair of the Metro Denver Partnership for Health. The partnership consists of representatives from six health departments in the Denver area, including Tri-County.

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 and 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.

Based on that information, Burman said that in-person learning should be a high priority, especially for elementary school students.

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