Editor’s note: A previous version of this story did not reference the new guidance, as it had not been provided at the time Colorado health officials commented to the Sentinel early yesterday evening.
AURORA | The Cherry Creek School District will begin to do more targeted quarantines in some cases instead of quarantining entire classes when a student contracts COVID-19, in response to new guidance that was released Tuesday by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Cherry Creek school officials have been asking for guidance on ways to reduce the number of students quarantined when just one person in a class contracts the COVID-19 virus, and others were what health officials have said is a safe distance away.
In the new guidance, the department says schools can do “targeted contact identification” after a positive COVID-19 test and quarantine only students who were within six feet of an infected person for 15 minutes or more while both were wearing masks — if they adhere to a list of criteria.
Those criteria include:
• Being in a county that is in the ‘Protect our Neighbors’ or ‘Safer at Home’ stage 1 or 2 phase.
• Having a seating chart that tracks the location of every student.
• Only one person in the class being positive for COVID-19.
• Each student and staff member being screened for COVID-19 symptoms every day.
• The affected student/staff member having worn a mask all day except at lunch.
• Social distancing and other precautions being enforced during meal times.
However, the guidance also asks schools to consider that “the most effective mechanism to limit the potential for disease transmission and reduce disruption to in-person learning is creating small cohorts and following the ‘standard contact identification’ path (generally, quarantine of an entire exposed classroom). Use of the ‘targeted contact identification’ approach represents a less-tested strategy and may be associated with greater risk.”
The department had previously recommended that the entire class be quarantined in all cases when a student tested positive for COVID-19.
Cherry Creek schools Superintendent Scott Siegfried said the district will plan to go forward with targeted contact identification in some instances. For elementary students it still makes sense to quarantine entire classes because students are in the same room all day, but for middle and high school students who rotate classrooms, the new procedure could be appropriate.
“We will use it, but it doesn’t mean every single time we will do that,” he said.
Cherry Creek School District officials had been seeking clarification from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment because they said two different definitions of “close contact” have been creating confusion in deciding whether to send students home to isolate.
Siegfried said confusion on Cherry Creek’s part came from the state health department’s own website. According to a health department web page, “close contact” is defined as someone within six feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes. Siegfried said every effort has been made to separate all secondary students by 6 feet.
However, the CDPHE also defines it as anyone who is in the same class or cohort as an infected person. For schools, that means the department is recommending that anyone who was in class with a person who tested positive for COVID-19 quarantine for 14 days, regardless of how far away students in a class are from each other.
“It has been frustrating to have to answer questions from community members and from kids and teachers that have been quarantined asking, ‘my kid sat 25 feet away from an individual, why does my kid have to miss two weeks of class?’” Siegfried said.
According to the district’s COVID-19 tracker, there are currently eight students and seven staff members who are positive for COVID-19, and 240 students and 22 staff members in quarantine. Since the beginning of the school year, there have been 48 incidents of COVID-19 cases that have required students or staff to quarantine.
Siegfried said he contacted the CDPHE asking them to clarify their guidelines. He also shared data with the department showing that of the 857 students and staff in the district who have had to quarantine since the beginning of the school year, only two developed COVID-19 while in quarantine. Based on that information, he believes that the district’s overlapping safety strategies for preventing COVID-19 — social distancing, cohorting, mask wearing — have been very successful.
Siegfried said he is grateful to the governor’s office and the CDPHE for releasing the new guidance and “allowing us to make good thoughtful decisions.”
A response provided by the state to a Sentinel inquiry seems to be more cautious about what procedures to follow.
“In indoor classroom settings, particularly those with poor ventilation and in situations where strict adherence to physical distance cannot be maintained, it is best to quarantine the entire class to mitigate spread of COVID-19,” the Colorado State Joint Information Center said in a statement in response to the Sentinel, after issuing the guidance earlier in the day.
“Our guidance recommends creating cohorts that are as small as possible, so if there is a positive case, the disruption is limited,” the statement said. “We are regularly reviewing our school guidance and will make adjustments based on feedback and how best to protect public health.”
Siegfried did not have a comment on the disparity, and a representative from the CDPHE could not immediately be reached for comment.