As local schools unveil re-opening plans, state epidemiologist warns of impending fall outbreak

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Signs taped to a classroom door at Gateway High School in Aurora give instructions. Schools are closed because of the pandemic crisis at least through most of April. PHOTO BY PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

DENVER | The state epidemiologist said Colorado educators should expect a second wave of COVID-19 worse than before when preparing to open schools at least, partially in the fall.

Gov. Jared Polis and the state epidemiologist at the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, Rachel Herlihy, told the state Board of Education Monday schools will have to be flexible, possibly opening and closing classrooms in response to outbreaks.

Herlihy also said that younger children are at less risk of succumbing to COVID-19 or even showing symptoms if exposed. But senior teachers will be among vulnerable individuals inside schools.

Much of the nature of COVID-19 is still unclear, such as whether people already infected with the virus develop a short-term or long-term immunity “or at all,” Herlihy said. State and local public health authorities are also still developing “contact tracing” capacities designed to track and limit outbreaks, including those in schools. 

That uncertainty about the location and ferocity of outbreaks has formed the foundation of local school policies to reopen schools.

Superintendents for Aurora Public Schools and the Cherry Creek School District have said flexibility will be a virtue in the fall. The two districts are planning to develop learning models that might change in response to virus levels. Students might stick with remote learning, switch to in-school learning or experience the year in a combination of the two. That’s been named a “hybrid” or “blended” learning model.

In operating schools, area superintendents will have to balance educating Aurora youth and allowing parents to go back to work with public health realities that will limit the number of students allowed inside a classroom or school bus.

Aurora Public Schools released its first sketches Monday of a fall reopening.

“APS is likely to begin the 2020-21 school year with a hybrid approach that combines in-person and remote learning,” spokesperson Corey Christiansen said.“However, APS will be prepared for in-person and fully remote learning scenarios.”

APS staff will brief the school board on the early plans Tuesday evening. Read the draft plans here. 

At the virtual state school board meeting, Herlihy described virus modeling scenarios developed late last month by researchers at the University of Colorado School of Public Health in Aurora and other institutions. The models, which are available to the public, incorporate varying levels of social distancing and assumptions about the virus in projecting hospitalization rates through November. (Herlihy said the models are regularly updated.)

The projections suggest Colorado will see a second peak of COVID-19 hospitalizations in September and October, barring a concerted effort to maintain high levels of social distancing.

“In most scenarios, we expected the next peak to be larger than the peak in April we experienced,” Herlihy said of the models.

State school board member Steve Durham (R-Colorado Springs) emphasized that the models need to accurately project how dangerous the pandemic might still be in the fall. Durham and other decision-makers will be relying in part on virus modeling when preparing to reopen schools.

“..The penalties for being wrong are fairly serious,” Durham said.

In her presentation, Herlihy said COVID-19 is generally less dangerous for children. She said about 35 percent to 50 percent of adults infected with COVID-19 have not shown symptoms. Researchers think that rate could be as high as 65 percent for children.

As such, proportionately less children have been hospitalized because of the virus than adults and seniors.

Herlihy also addressed the specter of Multi-system Inflammatory Syndrome. The affliction has been found to follow novel coronavirus infections in older children and adolescents, causing gastrointestinal distress but also aneurysms and respiratory failures. Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora has treated at least three children with the syndrome, the Sentinel reported. 

“We do know that it is very rare in children,” Herlihy said of the affliction.

But age is a risk factor in itself for COVID-19. Polis said high-risk teachers and students, including senior teachers who could succumb to the virus if infected, should be given the opportunity to stay home.

The state Department of Education has already released this and other guidance for school districts to consider when opening schools. Ideas on the table included one-way hallways, virus checks in schools and keeping students in one classroom throughout the day while teachers rotate in to various classes.

Polis reiterated the latter and other ideas districts are mulling over.