Just days after Poudre School District announced the move to Phase 1, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis on Nov. 17 unveiled the state’s significantly revised COVID-19 risk dial and encouraged schools to keep K-5 students learning in-person.
Some of our families and constituents have inquired further about the rationale behind PSD's choice to move all students to remote learning through winter break, as well as the district's response to the governor’s Nov. 17 remarks about educating students during the pandemic.
The decision to move back to Phase 1 was made for several key reasons:
Unsustainability of district staffing: Since returning to in-person learning Oct. 5, COVID-19 positive or probable cases have been taking a toll on our system, making it increasingly more difficult to teach, feed, transport and care for our students. In the past six weeks, staff members districtwide were shifted to remote education during case assessments or quarantined because they were close contacts of a person with COVID-19.
Prior to our Phase 1 announcement as communitywide spread increased, some principals and department heads grappled with how to maintain safe and appropriate daily operations in the face of staffing shortages – in some instances, staffing challenges alone nearly resulted in temporary school closures. As a few examples, quickly rising case counts and back-to-back assessments coupled with numerous staff absences were factors that led to Fossil Ridge High School being the first of PSD’s schools to shift remote; at one point, there was only one plumber to serve PSD’s more than 50 schools and facilities; custodial shortages strained the district’s ability to keep buildings sanitized; and some staff are quarantining because of an exposure outside of PSD (think weekend get-togethers, sleepovers among children and more).
Discontinuity of learning: As part of the district’s protocols for Phase 3, contact tracing assessment periods have been occurring daily. Over the past month and a half, we moved dozens of classrooms – and sometimes four or five secondary classes for one case alone – to remote learning for these assessments by PSD and LCDHE. Many students and staff have been quarantined by LCDHE as close contacts.
Teachers who have been identified as close contacts have taught remotely while quarantined, and substitutes covered their classes for students permitted to go to school in-person. Simply put, the back-and-forth effect of contact tracing to slow the spread of the virus was resulting in a discontinuity of teaching and learning. PSD is not alone, as school districts, hospitals and businesses throughout the county are struggling with staffing challenges that make it hard to stay open.
Alarming county and state COVID-19 conditions: Key COVID-19 data indicators continue to tell us we are struggling – as a county, state, nation and globe – to control the virus. As of Nov. 17, Larimer County was “high” on the county‘s risk index: the 14-day case rate was 765 cases per 100,000 (up from 73.6 on Sept. 15); the percentage of people in Larimer County who test positive is now at about 11%; and hospitalizations are now exceeding the highest numbers observed in April when the county was in the Stay at Home phase.
Considering these trends, the county’s three hospital systems are prepared to activate their surge plans, according to LCDHE. With community cases surging, PSD's COVID-19 Response Teams have been struggling to maintain capacity to conduct contact tracing investigations with LCDHE. Additionally, since September, testing centers are increasingly full, with hours-long wait times; and test turn-around times have increased – up to 7-10 days in some cases, which is an increase from 2-4 days earlier this fall – which slows contact tracing.
PSD will continue contact tracing in Phase 1, because limited staff and students will be in PSD facilities. As an example, the district will support our neediest students (academically and financially) at remote learning support centers. Here, students have access to a safe place – with internet and meals – to engage in remote learning. To be clear, adults will supervise students while they learn online with their teachers but NOT provide in-person instruction.
PSD’s response to Gov. Polis’ Nov. 17 remarks: During his Nov. 17 press conference, Gov. Polis announced that 15 counties will go to Level Red on the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s COVID-19 dial dashboard. Larimer County is not yet a Level Red county but is getting closer to becoming one. The dial dashboard categorizes counties’ COVID-19 risk levels by color and has until recently outlined increasingly stricter COVID-19 restrictions for each level, designed to slow the exponential growth of the virus. And although the new dial has a new purple “extreme” risk category, its PreK-12 recommendations are less restrictive than Level Red. Until this recent revision, the state health department’s dial recommended that Level Red counties shift to remote education; in particular, it indicated this shift should be considered when the case rate in a county reached 350 per 100,000, a rate Larimer County surpassed Nov. 4. Larimer County’s risk status on the state’s dial and this benchmark were among key factors in PSD’s decision to shift remote.
Although there will be tighter sanctions for restaurants and gyms for those Level Red counties, Gov. Polis in his remarks still recommended high-risk counties continue in-person learning for their youngest students. We base decisions in PSD upon data and effects of the pandemic on our school district. The health, safety and welfare of our students and staff is our top priority. Gov. Polis may make recommendations, but ultimately it is up to PSD leadership, with consultation from LCDHE, to decide how to educate and support our students.
There is a misconception that elementary-aged students are not getting the virus -- local data show that children between the ages of 3 and 18 are not immune. As of Nov. 18, LCDHE reported that cases are increasing in all age ranges, from young to old; the highest rate of positivity is among people aged 18-41 (more data and information are available on the LCDHE website). Additionally, PSD’s COVID-19 Case Dashboard showed that although roughly 46.3% of PSD’s 202 confirmed positive COVID-19 cases between Oct. 5 and Nov. 17 occurred in high schools, 24.8% occurred in elementary schools, 16.8% in middle schools, and 8.9% were in non-school support staff.
The district’s current plan is for students to be in remote education beginning Nov. 23 through the end of winter break. We understand that our students, staff and families would like to know more now so they can make plans, but we don’t yet know what community health conditions will be like next month and beyond. We will update the PSD community about our plans for Jan. 5 and after as we monitor the situation through December.