Under an update to state requirements in November, as long as school districts adhere to strict protocols, broad quarantines of classes or cohorts are no longer necessary regardless of the level of virus spread in a county.
Colorado tweaked those requirements on April 29, and they now apply to all school districts regardless of their level of COVID-19 safety protocols.
By the state's rules, school districts generally must quarantine those who come within 6 feet of a person with COVID-19 — or certain symptoms of the disease — for 15 minutes or more when both parties are masked. That also applies to anyone who had direct physical contact such as hugging or tackling.
The rules also require quarantines when someone was within 12 feet of the individual for 15 minutes or greater when either party was unmasked. That also applies when the interaction occurred during "high-risk activities" such as indoor exercise or athletics — as well as indoor singing or playing of wind or brass instruments.
The 15-minute threshold is cumulative, meaning that if the interaction occurred in small bits but adds up to 15 minutes over the course of a day, a quarantine is necessary, according to the state public-health department.
Fully vaccinated individuals, or those with test-confirmed COVID-19 in the past 90 days, are not required to quarantine but should monitor for symptoms.
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A coalition of Denver metro-area school districts sent a letter to the state public-health department, saying it's “time to eliminate mandatory COVID quarantines in Colorado's schools.”
“Messaging from Colorado's public health and elected officials has acknowledged, since before the new year, that rates of COVID transmission within our schools are low; that the mitigation measures we have in place are working; and that in-person schooling is critically important for many students in their social, emotional and academic development,” the April 26 letter from the school districts says.
The letter was signed onto by the superintendents of the Adams 12 Five Star, Elizabeth, Mapleton, Jefferson County, Littleton, 27J Schools (Brighton), Aurora, Englewood, Platte Canyon, Cherry Creek, Westminster and Douglas County school districts.
Many of the district leaders had been advocating for an end to school quarantine rules since before spring break and had heard that a cancellation of the rules was premature because of concerns about COVID-19 variants, the letter says.
School districts have generally been required to instruct people who come into contact with a person with COVID-19 or symptoms of the disease to quarantine.
The district leaders also noted fears that spread of the virus in schools “would markedly increase” as older students moved from hybrid classes to more densely occupied classrooms as full-time in-person classes resumed, the letter adds.
More than a dozen Colorado school districts have been collecting data regarding in-school COVID-19 spread throughout this school year's second semester, the letter says. The superintendents argue that the data shows that in-school spread “remains extremely low (despite) the presence of COVID variants in our state and even after the transition from hybrid schooling models in mid-March to early April,” the letter says.
“Our most recent data compiled on April 23 shows that less than one half of one percent of students and staff placed into quarantine since January have subsequently tested positive for the virus — and the rates are not increasing over the past month,” the letter says.
But the data the superintendents cite does not appear to account for the number of students and staff who chose to get tested for COVID-19 and those who chose not to undergo testing. Some may have asymptomatic cases, and some may have symptoms but choose not to get tested.
The Cherry Creek School District has cited the same type of statistic in past months. A March 8 report to the Cherry Creek school board says that among the 4,066 individuals who were told to quarantine since the start of the third quarter in Cherry Creek, only 17, or 0.42%, became knowingly COVID-positive during quarantine.
But the “knowingly” caveat is a nod to the limitation in the data: Not all students and staff decide to undergo testing.
“As in every other sector of the country, we are not able to account for the possibility of asymptomatic positives,” a report for a previous Cherry Creek school board meeting said.
In the April letter from the coalition of districts, superintendents say that frequent school quarantines have “caused constant disruption to classroom environments, stress for students preparing for end of year exams, and a lack of predictability and consistency in almost every facet of a student's school experience.”
“More than 3,000 students per week have been completing quarantines over the past two weeks across the 13 districts currently participating in the COVID data reporting effort,” the letter says.
The superintendents' data lists “semester two participating school districts” as 27J, Adams 12 Five Star, Aurora, Bennett, Cherry Creek, Denver, Englewood, Gilpin County, Mapleton, Ridgway, Sheridan, Westminster and Wiggins.
If existing quarantine rules remain in place, the letter estimates that 10% to 20% of students in the superintendents' districts could be told to quarantine before summer break.
“Those quarantines would be on top of others that students and families have had to navigate throughout the school year. The most extreme case of which we're aware concerns a student sent home on quarantine six times throughout the year,” the letter says. “But we have many students across our districts who have been out on quarantine two to three times this year and have had a choppy, inconsistent school experience.”
The combination of indoor masking for students and staff members, home isolation of COVID-positive staff and students, and directives that symptomatic individuals stay home has proven effective elsewhere in maintaining low rates of in-school COVID transmission, the letter argues.
John Douglas, head of Tri-County Health Department, in March pointed to recent findings by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that reiterated that schools have low rates of COVID-19 transmission. Tri-County Health is the local public health agency for Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties.
The information “has continued to reinforce that notion” that schools are safe, under the circumstances, if they adhere to safety precautions, Douglas said at the time.
A report on the CDC's website, updated in March, says that increases in COVID-19 cases among school-aged children and school reopenings do not appear to pre-date increases in community spread of COVID-19.
“When community transmission was low, there was no association between in-person learning and community spread,” the report says.
It also says: “If community transmission is high, students and staff are more likely to come to school while infectious, and COVID-19 can spread more easily in schools.”
“When a combination of effective prevention strategies is implemented and strictly adhered to in the K-12 in-person learning environment, the risk of transmission in the school setting appears to be lower than or equivalent to the transmission risk in other community settings,” the report says.
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