Colorado school districts have pledged to work closely with local public health authorities to keep students safe as federal health officials expressed mounting concern about the spread of coronavirus cases.
In general, districts plan to keep schools open unless public health authorities tell them to close. Some districts said they’re working on ways to continue instruction if schools close, but it’s not clear yet what that would look like — or if it will ever be necessary.
Centers for Disease Control officials said in a news briefing Tuesday that spread of the virus in the United States is inevitable and urged agencies, including school districts, to prepare plans to help slow the spread. Those could include dividing classes into smaller groups or closing school altogether. Those steps are not necessary yet, but school districts should be prepared to put such measures in place, officials said.
Local district plans call for closely tracking attendance data to report daily to state health agencies and stepping up sanitation efforts. Districts are also looking at other roles that schools could play. For example, in a worst-case scenario in which health centers are overwhelmed, Jeffco has a plan to designate seven school sites as places where community members could receive medicine or vaccines.
As of Tuesday, the CDC reported 14 confirmed cases of the virus in the U.S. None of them in Colorado.
The new coronavirus, COVID-19, spreads much like the flu, through sneezing or coughing. The virus may also be transmitted when a person comes into contact with an infected surface and then touches their nose, mouth, or eyes.
Symptoms, which can be delayed after contact with the virus, include fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Health officials say people should follow typical measures such as frequent hand washing, sneezing or coughing into the crook of the elbow, and staying home if sick.
School district officials said they are taking guidance from local and state health departments.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment sent letters to schools and child care providers noting that schools and centers can “help control the spread of respiratory pathogens by regularly cleaning and disinfecting high-touch surfaces.” The letter also said the department would be in regular communication with school nurses.
On Wednesday, Katy Anthes, the state’s commissioner of education, sent a note to district superintendents letting them know the department is working on plans to support schools.
“Please know that you have my commitment that CDE will be supportive of you and will provide any of you that experience a prolonged closure with the utmost flexibilities regarding instructional time, data reporting, and other state-level requirements,” she said in her note to superintendents.
Adams 14 officials said that on Tuesday they requested a meeting with Tri-County Health officials to receive more guidance.
In Westminster, spokesman Steve Saunders said the district discussed its preparations with school board members on Tuesday and plans to meet with principals on Thursday to talk about the possibility of multiday closures.
“We don’t have those capabilities for remote learning,” where a class would be streamed to students at home, Saunders said. But one possibility the district will consider is whether it may be able to let students check out Chromebooks to do some work at home in case of school closing.
Saunders said the district has tried to get a sense of how many of its students, many of whom come from low-income families, have internet access in their homes, but said it’s hard to get a good idea. Still, he said the district may consider sending out a survey to gather new data.
Jeffco Public Schools, Colorado’s second-largest school district, shared a “Highly Infectious Disease Preparedness Plan” that has just been updated, and is available for review online.
That plan calls for close communication with other agencies, and notes the district response will be to “maintain school staying in session until notified by local authorities for the need to close.”
A spokeswoman for the Douglas County school districts said that should an outbreak in the county occur, “we will work with all agencies to clearly communicate a step-by-step plan to first and foremost, keep our students and staff safe, and then plan to continue to educate them during an outbreak.”
Most school districts did not offer detailed plans for what conditions would cause schools to close or how they might offer classes remotely. In some communities, especially with high numbers of low-income families, that could be a challenge.
Colorado did recently see another instance in which the rapid spread of a stomach virus shut down schools across the state at the end of 2019, including two in Adams 14, and the entire school district of Mesa County in western Colorado. In those cases, the districts did not offer remote learning while schools were closed.
Regardless of pre-existing plans, what ends up being put in place in each community will depend on the severity of the spread of the virus locally.
Ann Schimke contributed to this report.