If there is one thing that is constant, it is that the COVID-19 pandemic is always changing. Because of that, it's important for our community to understand there is not one single data point that will determine whether Poudre School District is operating in an educational phase with remote education (Phase 1), mostly remote learning with small group in-person supports (Phase 2), a remote and in-person hybrid (Phase 3), or fully in-person education with health protocols (Phase 4). We understand this may be frustrating to hear because we, as humans, like certainty and knowing that when X happens, Y will always occur as a result. Unfortunately, that is not the case with the current global situation.
How PSD and the local health department work together
What is certain is that throughout the response to COVID-19, PSD staff have been in constant communication with our partners at the Larimer County Department of Health and Environment (LCDHE), consulting multiple times a week (sometimes multiple times a day) about the district’s current plans, tracking county data and overall community risk. Public health conditions, guidance and orders have been changing rapidly -- sometimes on a near-daily basis, and PSD has remained nimble, so we’re prepared no matter what.
An added layer of complexity is that PSD follows numerous organizations whose health and COVID-19 response guidance and orders are often changing and sometimes in conflict; examples are the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, the Colorado Governor’s Office, the Colorado Department of Education, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to name a few. PSD also closely follows guidance from the Larimer County Department of Health and Environment, which is must interpret and follow state health and CDC guidance. It’s important to note that the LCDHE team is comprised of numerous staff, including nurses and physicians like Dr. Chris Urbina, LCDHE medical director.
COVID-19 data, considerations around community risk
LCDHE makes the county’s COVID-19 data publicly available on an online dashboard that is updated at a minimum every 24 hours, but at times more frequently. The dashboard features current data for total cases, deaths, outbreaks, how Larimer County compares to other Colorado counties, as well as the current community risk index, which has been “medium” throughout the summer. PSD staff receive regular updates from the LCDHE team about these data, the county’s overall response to COVID-19, and their current observations, concerns, areas of improvement and recommendations. Although all data are taken into consideration in the overall context of community risk, here are a few key data points that PSD leadership are paying attention to while considering what happens after Oct. 16 and whether the district will shift from remote education:
14-day case rate per 100,000, also referred to as the “14-day average:” Because this number, like other LCDHE data, changes often, we advise people to click on the link to see what it is currently, as opposed to citing a figure here that will quickly become outdated. High risk is defined by LCDHE as 100 or more per 100,000; medium risk is 50-100 cases per 100,000; and low risk is 50 or fewer per 100,000. Earlier this summer, the county’s 14-day average was close to 100 cases per 100,000, prompting the state health department to put the county on notice about potentially losing its variance to open earlier than the rest of the state. Although the 14-day average has improved over the summer, LCDHE Public Health Director Tom Gonzales has said he wants to see the county’s average closer to 50 cases per 100,000.
14-day test positivity percentage: As of early September 2020, the county dashboard showed the test positivity percentage at about 3 percent, which is below the state’s target for counties to be at 5 percent or lower.
Percent hospital utilization: This is the total percent occupancy of hospitals within the two largest health systems in Larimer County: UCHealth and Banner. The hospitals report data to LCDHE three times a week. If cases rise in the community, the health department keeps a close eye to make sure our hospitals have enough beds to treat COVID-19 patients, as well as those who are in car crashes, have heart attacks and more. If cases surged, there’s concern there may not be enough capacity to treat everyone who needs it.
COVID-19 testing turnaround time: As PSD families and community members will recall, one of the reasons for PSD shifting to opening the 2020-21 school year in remote education was because test turnaround times were lagging statewide, rendering contact tracing (an essential tool LCDHE uses to minimize outbreaks in our community) essentially obsolete. Contact tracing is a necessary component to PSD’s plan to not just open schools but keep them open over a longer period of time; the district wants to avoid a yo-yo effect of opening and closing to minimize the negative impacts for our families. To be clear, Larimer County and its partners have worked hard so there are enough supplies to test approximately 1,500 people a day for COVID-19. What was lacking at the time that PSD decided to begin the year in remote education was an effective turnaround time on clinical lab results to facilitate effective contact tracing. LCDHE should be receiving clinical lab results in two days or less (a CDC standard) to effectively identify close contacts of positive cases and issue quarantine orders to stop the spread of the virus.
It’s critical to note that these data change day by day, and sometimes hour by hour, and that they could either improve or decline, leading to concerns that the district will closely monitor and consider.
How have things changed between summer and early fall?
Between July and early September, the LCDHE has been working hard to make improvements in this area. Previously, only about 30 percent of test results were getting to LCDHE within two days or less and about 70 percent were four days or more – with some taking up to seven days. As of the week of Aug. 31, however, this turnaround time has improved, with about 70 percent of results getting to the LCDHE by the two-day benchmark. The county is achieving these improvements because of hard work and community partnerships, including one with Colorado State University, which is opening a laboratory as well as with a private clinical laboratory that the Colorado Department of Health and Environment contracts with an understanding of 48-hour turnaround times.
This information is still new to PSD, and staff are contemplating what this improvement coupled with the other community COVID-19 data mean for the future of district operations. As of early September, it is still too early to say what happens after Oct. 16, but rest assured that staff will continue consulting with the health department and communicate clearly to PSD staff, families and the community about district plans for mid-October and beyond.
Considering PSD’s significant size – roughly 3,800 employees and 30,000 students – is also another factor in leadership’s decisions about how to operate the district. There is a significant difference between the sheer scale of one, smaller private school, for example, and the entire PSD system – and what that means to ensure social distancing as possible, building a shared culture of safety, and more. Size is not insurmountable, but it demands careful consideration when assessing safety and implementation of change.
Is PSD paying attention to other school districts?
Additionally, PSD staff are closely watching as school districts and higher education institutions across the nation have re-opened, monitoring the increases in case counts, teacher and student quarantines, and school closures that have resulted in some cases. It’s also important to remember that we’re interconnected up and down the Front Range. If Weld County had a surge in cases that exceeded its hospital capacity, for example, Larimer County officials expect that we would see some overflow into Larimer’s hospitals, which could have a ripple effect for our residents.