When Parker resident Dale Chu dropped off his daughter, Kellan, for her first day of kindergarten at Leman Academy of Excellence, the 5-year-old was so excited she barely made time to say goodbye before running into the building.
Like many Colorado kids, Kellan spent most of the spring and summer sequestered from other children her age after the novel coronavirus shuttered schools. That was perhaps the biggest reason Chu and his wife decided to enroll their daughter in in-person learning this fall, even after they had a close encounter with COVID-19.
“It definitely gave us a scare, but there’s no perfect solution from our vantage point,” said Chu, as he recalled having to quarantine Kellan after an instructor at her summer camp tested positive for the virus. “Given the risk level, everything I’ve seen for a 5-year-old and the trade-offs, putting her back in-person was almost a no-brainer.”
Parents, educators and medical experts spent the summer break debating how to safely welcome students back to school in the midst of a global pandemic. Now that classes are back in session, parents and administrators say they are cautiously optimistic that months of planning are offering a safe and successful return to in-person learning — even as cases of COVID-19 pop up on campuses across the state.
“Surprisingly low” case counts
Health experts fully expected cases of COVID-19 surface in schools when they reopened, given that Colorado is still experiencing some community spread of the virus, said Dr. Alexis Burakoff, medical epidemiologist with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
If there’s a high level of COVID-19 community spread — meaning the virus is being transmitted person-to-person within the general community — it’s more likely to show up in schools.
An isolated case, however, is not necessarily cause for concern, Burakoff said. More telling would be a school-based outbreak, which indicates a specific building could be the conduit for the virus to spread. CDPHE has identified two school outbreaks, each with two cases, since classes started.
It’s an important distinction, said Sean O’Leary, professor and pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Colorado’s School of Medicine in Aurora. Since it’s early in the school year, he expects most positive cases “came in from the outside” rather than being contracted at school. Even in a district like Cherry Creek, which has at least 11 confirmed cases across 12 schools, O’Leary called the rate of infection “surprisingly low” compared to the size of the student body. Cherry Creek’s 2019-20 enrollment was more than 56,000 students.
The primary indicator O’Leary is watching is whether a single case in a school leads to a significant number of others.
“What other countries are showing us is that the virus isn’t spreading very efficiently within schools,” he said. “But that’s also in places where, for most part, they have lower levels of coronavirus in the community.”
Protocols in place
Still, schools aren’t taking any chances. On Aug. 10, Colorado Early Colleges Fort Collins opened under what Collin Turbert, head of school, called a “mostly remote” format. Only a limited number of students who need in-person support, such as special education students and English language learners, were allowed back in small groups.
After the parent of one student who attended McMurray Middle School tested positive for COVID-19, the campus shut down for four days. The student’s test also came back positive, leading to the campus’ closure through Labor Day.
It was a disappointing interruption to an otherwise exciting start to the year, Turbert said. Staff had gotten in a rhythm screening for students for symptoms and keeping track of cohorts so they could appropriately sanitize classrooms. He was pleasantly surprised by students’ compliance with the mandatory mask policy.
Though Turbert knew COVID-19 might appear in his district, he didn’t think it would happen so quickly.
“Especially with how we’re doing it with smaller groups, I thought there was a good chance we’d make it through at least a couple months before we saw that first case,” Turbert said. “I’ve lost many hours of sleep over this and continue to.”
Philip Qualman, superintendent of Eagle County Schools, believes the district’s planning and preparation will pay off. Before classes started on Aug. 25, a teacher at Battle Mountain High School tested positive for COVID-19, putting the district’s protocols to the test.
One of the biggest challenges is ensuring the administration communicates with families and staff in a calm and transparent way, he said. That’s especially important as he looks toward winter, when nearby ski destinations like Vail Resorts open to international tourists.
“What we’re trying to communicate is we understand it’s going to happen, we’re prepared for those cases and we have to handle them in a calm and deliberate manner,” Qualman said.
Families adapt to new normal
Communication from the school is one reason Monica Warstler feels confident about the safety measures in place at John E. Flynn A Marzano Academy in Westminster, where her three kids recently began attending in-person classes. However, getting into a routine has been an adjustment.
Because students are no longer allowed to share supplies, they must carry their own in their backpacks, which can be very heavy, she said. Warstler also worried her children wouldn’t take to wearing masks, so she made them each one and let them pick out their own fabric. Carmen, 8, chose a pattern with cats. Vanessa, 6, chose one with dogs. Blaine, 5, decided on a John Deere theme.
“I take them to school, and they’re wearing their masks. When I pick them up from day care in the evening, they’re wearing their masks,” Warstler said. “They don’t really complain.”
Eleven-year-old Storey Bennett is “very excited” to go back to school. The Colorado Springs student is doing e-learning until after Labor Day but said it’s hard to connect with her teachers and understand the class assignments. Plus, she can’t wait to meet some new friends.
Social-emotional learning is one of the most important things that schools provide to students, and as experts weighed in on the reopening debate, it was one of the primary reasons they advocated for getting students back into the classroom ASAP. Chu said he’s seen the benefits of social interaction for his daughter Kellan in just the first week of school, and that’s been worth sending her back even if safety protocols, such as mask wearing and social distancing, are not as stringent for kindergartners.
“Listening to her speak and talk about her friends, the energy and enthusiasm about it is very different than when she was on Zoom all of last spring,” he said.
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