Jeffco schools struggle to stay open due to rising COVID counts

Overall county picture improving even as younger demographic sees outbreaks

Paul Albani-Burgio
palbaniburgio@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 5/6/21

With the finish line so clearly in sight, Jeffco Public Schools officials are arguing for schools be able to finish the year, even if it means tolerating certain levels of COVID-19 spread. The last …

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Jeffco schools struggle to stay open due to rising COVID counts

Overall county picture improving even as younger demographic sees outbreaks

Posted

With the finish line so clearly in sight, Jeffco Public Schools officials are arguing for schools be able to finish the year, even if it means tolerating certain levels of COVID-19 spread.

The last day of school for all students in Jeffco Public Schools is scheduled for May 27.

That is the current situation in Jefferson County, where overall COVID-19 case numbers are starting to look better following a recent surge in cases. Among younger demographics though, particularly in area high schools, outbreaks are continuing.

As of May 5, COVID-19 case rates in Jeffco were highest among those 20-29 years old with those 10-19 years old now having the second highest rate of cases. The high rate of cases among school age children corresponds with what Jefferson County Pupblic Health Executive Director Comstock called "a large and growing number of outbreaks in Jeffco schools" during a meeting held on May 5.

Comstock said that situation has proven challenging for JCPH and the state to handle as Jeffco Public Schools and other districts have made “loud and clear that schools are just desperate to keep in-person learning and activities through the end of the year” leaving health authorities to try to balance that desire with the need to ensure they are doing so safely.

Those tensions came to a head on April 29, when JCPH had to notify the administration at Columbine High School that the school would need to close for 14 days because five cohort or classroom outbreaks had been recorded at the school over the preceding 14 days.

However, Comstock said that JCPS Superintendent Tracy Dorland made clear that she would not voluntarily close the school. Instead, Dorland reached out to the state health department, which agreed to allow Columbine to participate in a pilot program that would allow the school to remain open if every student was tested and the overall positivity rate for the student body came back at 5% or less.

In a writte

Over the weekend, students were given at-home rapid tests and told they could not return for in-person instruction unless they could prove they had tested negative, had been vaccinated or had tested positive for COVID-19 in the last 90 days but were no longer infected.

Comstock said about half of families declined to participate in the pilot, which meant their students would not be able to participate in in-person learning and activities for 14 days. However, among the half that did participate, the test positivity rate came back at “approximately 3%.”

“That is not quite as high as CDPHE expected but it was much, much higher than the school expected,” said Comstock, who said she believed that if the full student body were to be tested the positivity rate would've come back at higher than 5%.

In a written statement, Jeffco Schools Public Information Officer Cameron Bell, said the Distict is monitoring case counts and working closely with JCPH and CDPHE to take as many actions as possible to avoid school building closures.
"At Columbine, we implemented a testing protocol last weekend and into this week for all students and staff. With these steps, we hope to keep the case count under control and keep the building open these last couple weeks of school," her statement read.

But even as Columbine was able to remain open (although it could close if the positivity percentage goes above 5% after a second required round of testing that was set to occur later in the week), Comstock said the situation with schools remains “a huge challenge.” As of May 5, three other schools besides Columbine had at least three outbreaks.

“I know how frustrated everyone is because we have end-of-the-year events, sports playoffs and graduation,” Comstock said. “But I think that that 3% test positivity in the first round when less than half of students participated in testing is very telling. And that's just indicative of how widespread COVID transmission is in our middle and high school students.”

Overall COVID outlook improving

But even as the end of the school year seems tenuous for many schools, the overall COVID outlook in Jeffco now looks better than it has in several weeks.

After about a month of steady increases to Jeffco's rate of new COVID-19 cases and other key measures for the severity of the pandemic, things seem to tentatively be heading in the right direction once again.

“After a very disturbing series of weeks where we were going up, now we are finally seeing a downturn [in new cases],” said Comstock. “I am very hopeful that will be a continued downturn rather than a plateau.”

The seven -day new case rate reached its highest level since early January on April 26 when it was 204.1 cases per 100,000 in population. It then started a period of decline and reached 177.5 per 100,000 on May 3.

The county's seven-day test positivity rate also declined significantly in recent days, going from 6.5% on April to 5.6% on May 2.

“It's still higher than we'd like, we want to see it below 5% but at least it's no longer 6.5%,” Comstock said.

Meanewhile, the now all-important measure of the 14-day rate of new hospitalizations in the county, which JCPH will use as the basis for any changes in COVID policy beginning on May 15, was at 1.19 hospitalizations per 100,000 in county population.

Anything under two hospitalizations per 100,000 in county population will be enough to keep the county in the new Level Clear, in which most business and residents will be subject to no COVID-19-related restrictions apart from mask mandates, once it makes the planned transition to Level Clear on May 15.

Comstock also said that based on the county's current metrics, she has “every intention” of moving forward with that planned move to Level Clear.

But even with those metrics again dropping and Jeffco primed to remove most COVID-19 restrictions, Comstock said residents should not lose sight of the fact that “this is not over,” as she put it.

“The reason we are still doing all these public health and mitigation orders is we are still having people die from COVID,” she said. “I do know that since I updated the Board of Commissioners yesterday we've had one more community member die of COVID-19.”

In recent days, Jeffco crossed a sober death milestone when it recorded its 800th death from COVID-19. As of May 6,the death count stands at 805.

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