DENVER – As Colorado school districts continue to grapple with what to do at K-12 schools amid sharp increases in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and outbreaks, the state public health department released a report Wednesday evening providing them guidance based off findings from the first three months of the school year.
The report from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) stresses the importance of in-person learning and says that data show coronavirus outbreaks are much more likely to happen among high school students than students in particularly grades K-5, and to a lesser extent, grades 6-8.
“Findings show that older students are a larger proportion of outbreak cases than younger students, and that many staff who acquire COVID-19 may acquire it in the community and not necessarily the school setting,” the report says.
It shows that among outbreaks at Colorado schools, staff accounted for 58% at K-5 schools, for 38% of outbreaks at middle schools, and for just 25% of outbreaks at high schools. More outbreaks have occurred recently in early-childhood care settings.
“The majority of in-school transmission in Colorado has occurred between teachers/staff during in-person meetings and trainings followed by transmission between both students and teachers in the classroom and between students and coaches in sports settings,” the report says.
“The existence of school outbreaks demonstrates that transmission can occur in schools. However, the relatively small number and size of these outbreaks indicates that school mitigation measures are limiting the introduction of COVID-19 from non-school community and household settings and preventing widespread transmission in schools."
The report from the CDPHE says its data suggests that schools serving grades K-8, if they properly follow the state’s case and outbreak guidance for schools, “have been able to provide a reasonably safe in-person learning environment.
“Districts should consider the benefits of in-person learning with this data that show lower rates of transmission when making their decisions,” the report said.
The report contains a series of recommendations, some of which are already being put in place by districts in their decisions on whether to move some or all students back to remote learning. Among those are a recommendation that districts and charter schools either curtail or stop extracurricular activities at schools to “preserve in-person learning when cases are rising exponentially.”
“While extracurricular activities have value for participants, they should not be prioritized at the expense of in-person learning, the health of school community members, and transmission of COVID-19 in the wider Colorado community,” the report states.
The report also says that districts should prioritize in-person learning for younger students especially, as well as students in special education programs, English learners, students experiencing homelessness and students with other needs who would not benefit from remote learning.
It also recommends that schools consider offering on-site remote learning in groups of less than 10 for students of all ages if they have poor internet connections, are experiencing housing insecurity or other issues.
Another recommendation by the CDPHE, which has been the subject of discussion involving district parents and district officials statewide, is that districts and schools should be talking with teachers, staff and the broader school community as they make decisions moving forward about what learning settings will look like, especially regarding moves to remote learning.
“Regardless of what strategy schools adopt, communication and coordination with educators and other stakeholders in the school community is paramount,” the report says. “Individuals with medical vulnerabilities and other safety concerns should continue to receive support if they choose to learn or work remotely.”
Several districts, particularly in the metro area, have sent some or all students back to remote learning settings as coronavirus cases and outbreaks continue to increase exponentially. The CDPHE’s report hints they see no sign of the virus’ current spread stopping soon and that officials are unsure what the widespread community transmission will mean for schools.
“Cases are increasing quickly, with no signs of slowing or a plateau, and it’s likely this trend will continue,” the report says. “…While these data are statewide, high transmission rates in the community have implications for transmission rates and levels of safety in schools not yet fully understood.”