The delicate dance of keeping students safe in Denver area schools as coronavirus lurks

It’s been less than a week since a handful of school districts in the metro area began the delicate dance of bringing children back to the classroom amid a global coronavirus pandemic that has to date infected approximately 55,000 people in Colorado.

Against that backdrop comes the grim recognition that this may be a routine too difficult to choreograph and too complex to execute in the long run, as COVID-19 outbreaks at schools around the country — including last week’s positive COVID-19 test of a teacher in a Westminster school and infections of two students at a Fort Lupton high school — force education officials to reverse course and send kids back home to learn online.

But Scott Siegfried, superintendent of 55,000-student Cherry Creek School District, said he will do all he can to keep kids at their desks — until he can’t.

“I will track this every day, as long as the pandemic goes on,” he said last week via a videoconference call. “If I have to evolve, I’ll evolve.”

Cherry Creek began in-person learning last Monday, becoming one of the first districts in the metro area to open its buildings since the coronavirus struck in March. This Monday, Douglas County, with 67,000 students, will become the largest school district in the state to launch in-person classes.

Other large districts, like Denver and Aurora, have opted to delay opening schools until later in the fall.

The hope is that with Colorado’s relatively tame COVID-19 transmission numbers — at least compared to states where in-person learning has faltered due to coronavirus outbreaks — any infections that occur will be detected early and those individuals sequestered.

That was the message from Gov. Jared Polis last week, as he visited second-grade classrooms at Village East Elementary School in the Cherry Creek School District.

“It’s about acting quickly and early,” the governor said.

With Colorado’s COVID-19 positivity rate hovering around 3%, transmission of the virus appears to be far less aggressive here than in states like California, Florida and Arizona. The World Health Organization advises that the rate of coronavirus tests coming back positive should be 5% or lower for at least two weeks before reopenings proceed.

“That is really making it a little easier, that kind of environment, than in areas that have such viral presence that even when they open, they’ll have to close a week later,” Polis said.

Notwithstanding the temporary closure of Fort Lupton High School due to two COVID-19 cases, the governor said he hopes Colorado school officials can take a more surgical approach to controlling infections that pop up in districts, quarantining just a few students or a single class rather than shutting down the whole school.

Heidi Baskfield, vice president of population health and advocacy at Children’s Hospital Colorado, said success will depend on each community’s COVID-19 transmission rates and the level of compliance with social distancing, sanitizing and masking guidelines.

“Expectations set early and enforced regularly are going to be key here. I don’t think a single case should in and of itself cause alarm,” she said. “As long as our community spread looks the way it does, schools committed to safe practices will be able to thread the needle.”

“It’s the unknown”

For Audrey Thorstad, a second-grade teacher at Hodgkins Leadership Academy in Westminster, threading that needle means protecting herself twice over.

“If I wear a mask and a face shield, and the kids wear masks, that significantly reduces my chances of catching coronavirus,” she said.

Thorstad, who is pregnant, said she keeps a close eye on how the virus is behaving in Adams County and across the state and keeps abreast of guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Tri-County Health when evaluating risk.

She wasn’t thrown off by Friday’s announcement of a positive coronavirus test at her school.

“I’ve always known there was a possibility that a co-worker could test positive,” she wrote in an email. “We are all doing what we can to keep safe and also support our children.”

But that same comfort is not shared by all teachers. Fran Groff-Gonzales, president of the Westminster teachers union, said “people are scared — it’s the unknown.”

“It does feel experimental for a lot of folks,” she said.

In Westminster, a district of 8,500 students, the teacher’s union hammered out a memorandum of understanding with the administration on how to proceed with in-person learning. The agreement calls for mask use by everyone in the building, keeping classes to around 25 students, serving lunch in the classroom or outside and ensuring all students have their own dedicated supplies.

Also, students’ access to schools will be staggered to “eliminate the chaos of the hallways,” said Westminster Public Schools’ chief operating officer, James Duffy. Duffy said the school has “hundreds of gallons” of hand sanitizer on hand and nearly a million disposable masks for students and educators.

Westminster Public Schools has launched a K-12 Virtual Academy, which had enrolled more than 2,100 students as of Friday, many of them signing up in the last week. That’s where Suzy Kassan, a fifth-grade teacher who typically works at Tennyson Knolls Preparatory School, chose to perform her job while the pandemic continues to play out.

“I do have concerns about getting COVID-19 and giving it to friends and loved ones,” said Kassan, who said she has asthma and upper respiratory tract issues. “I’m just a very cautious person.”

She doesn’t worry about her students getting an inferior education online, an approach that got heavy criticism from parents this past spring as school districts hastily assembled remote learning plans as the coronavirus closed in.

“I don’t think my kids are going to lose out at all,” Kassan said.

But district officials note that many of their students come from socioeconomically challenged homes. More than 70% of the student body receives free or reduced-price lunches. And access to technology is not equal, Duffy said, despite the district’s efforts last spring to hand out 200 WiFi hotspots to families in need of an internet connection.

“We have a huge digital divide,” he said. “Some families don’t have the background to help their kids digitally.”

“Can’t be online forever”

Getting students the proper “support structures” is critical in the Cherry Creek School District, Siegfried said. The superintendent, who has worked in the district since 1995, said “nothing compares to a student being in a classroom with teachers.”

“What we risk if we don’t have in-person learning is a generation of kids having that gap in learning, socialization and mental health,” he said. “That human interaction is important.”

Dr. Douglas Newton, chief medical officer for SonderMind, a company that matches certified therapists with patients, said loneliness and isolation is a “huge factor” with children, especially during a pandemic.

“We are social animals and when we don’t have connections, not only can you have developmental delays but emotional impacts,” Newton said. “What we’re seeing out of this from kids is they’re feeling a little less hopeful.”

And while epidemiological data suggest that elementary school-aged kids are relatively safe to go back to school as they don’t spread COVID-19 as easily as older people, he said, there’s no way to guarantee that transmission won’t occur — thus making the decision about “acceptable risk very personalized.”

For Lily Ovrutskiy, who has three children in Cherry Creek schools, said it’s not only a question of how kids learn best but how remote learning can be executed effectively while both parents work.

“Both me and my husband are full-time working parents with very demanding jobs and we cannot accommodate remote learning support for such young kids,” she said. “Especially elementary age kids need 100% hands-on support throughout the entire day. In addition, young children absolutely need to be a part of a system that teaches them discipline in a formal environment among peers and supervision.”

Even so, in-person learning in Cherry Creek won’t look the same as normal. High school students will be broken into two cohorts and each group will attend school just two days a week. Monday is a planning day when students learn from home.

“Only half the kids are in the classroom each day and only half the kids are in the hallways every day,” Siegfried said.

Many of the same distancing and cleaning measures in place in Westminster will be in effect in Cherry Creek, and Siegfried will monitor a screen daily showing a matrix of virus behavior that will help him determine the course of the pandemic in Arapahoe County.

“We’ll look at that matrix as to how the community is doing,” he said. “In Cherry Creek, we chose to be data-driven. I take guidance from health experts, not from CNN or Fox News.”

BreAnne Schwab, a teacher at Shaw Heights Middle School in Westminster, said the pandemic data is important to her as well in figuring out whether to return to her social studies classroom or not.

“If you asked me in June or July, I would have rioted in the streets against (returning to the classroom),” she said.

But with Colorado’s improved coronavirus picture over the past month, she feels better about going back. It also helped that Westminster families choosing to attend the virtual academy has had the effect of chopping her class size from 27 kids to 14, allowing her to better separate desks and create the necessary distance between students.

“I feel like a guinea pig because we’re doing it first,” Schwab said. “Are we going to have to work harder to make it work? Probably. But we can’t be online forever.”

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