Students went on break from Roaring Fork School District and Garfield Re-2 just days before the omicron COVID variant was detected in Garfield County.
But through the first semester of the school year, both districts staved off the need to move to remote learning, fulfilling the desire to keep students in classrooms, which spokespeople for both districts highlighted as a top priority. Roaring Fork School District reported 116 positive cases across the semester, while Re-2 reported 210. For Roaring Fork, it was a significantly higher total than any of the previous semesters impacted by COVID-19. But with advances in treatments, guidance and vaccines and increased masking, the number isn’t as significant as it was before in the eyes of superintendent Rob Stein.
“It may be that the case rate is about the same this year as last year, it could be higher, I don’t know,” Stein said. “But we don’t have to quarantine as much because the guidance has changed.”
Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment guidelines state that individuals exposed in a “typical classroom exposure” can avoid quarantine if they are vaccinated or, if they are unvaccinated, both parties are correctly wearing masks.
With the district’s mask mandate and community vaccination rate that exceeded 70% sometime in October according to Stein, the max number of students quarantining on an individual day peaked at 25 on Nov. 15. The highest number of new quarantines came on Aug. 26, when a band group experienced an outbreak. In two instances since Nov. 1, 12 students entered quarantine on the same day. On Nov. 8, eight students tested positive, the highwater mark for the semester.
In total, two positive tests had confirmed transmission in school, though 75 are marked as “unknown” on the dashboard.
One of those confirmed transmissions came in an elementary school, Basalt. Stein said elementary schools have posed the greatest challenge to this point, particularly in the early childhood sector.
“The hardest hit was early childhood,” Stein said. “The little kids don’t wear masks, so we’ve had a lot more quarantines and the whole class shut down.”
A total of 53 positive cases came out of early childhood and elementary school levels, while 29 came out of middle schools and 31 came out of high schools. Three cases aren’t shown in the breakdown, being attributed to staff not working in schools.
The majority of positive cases in the district come from Glenwood Springs, with 71. Glenwood Springs Middle School accounts for 20 cases, the most in any of the district’s 13 schools. Glenwood High had 19 cases.
While Roaring Fork started the semester with a mask mandate, Re-2 didn’t implement one until Sept. 27, seven weeks into classes. Before the mandate, the district counted 26 positive cases and 184 after.
“The school district is really proud of the fact that we have been able to stay in school for 18 months now and keep kids in-person learning,” Garfield Re-2 Public Information Officer Theresa Hamilton said.
The district’s “3.0” COVID dashboard estimates that mask wearing has kept an estimated 2,021 students and 149 staff members from having to quarantine who would otherwise be asked to. Hamilton said that the district has not issued an in-classroom quarantine since the mask mandate was implemented and the only in-school quarantine came from a wrestling team.
According to district data, 150 students and eight staff members were in quarantine on Sept. 23, the last day before the mask mandate. The numbers fell to 55 and six, respectively, following the implementation of the mandate.
Since Sept. 27, the highest individual number of students quarantining occurred Oct. 27, with 71.
The latest edition of the district’s dashboard does not break down data by school, community, level or show transmission location, as Hamilton said the new design was designed so it was, “simple and provided all the data that people need to have.”
In the dashboard displaying data prior to Sept. 27, 19 of the 26 cases came out of Rifle, seven of which were at Rifle High School.
None of the positive cases were indicated as transmitted within school.
Looking ahead with omicron
With students scattering for the holidays among a new, highly-transmissible variant, the state’s public health department advised both districts of new guidance coming soon. Hamilton said that they were expecting the update the week of Christmas, but it’s now, “going to be a few more weeks.”
“We have learned about COVID that, wait a while and the landscape will continue to change, whether it’s the alpha, beta or delta,” Hamilton said. “Heading into next semester, we’re looking forward to the new guidance and being able to evaluate our protocols.”
As the new variant reaches into local counties, it’s become a waiting game and preparing for all scenarios.
“We’re thinking this might hit us during or after the holidays,” Stein said. “We’ve discussed being ready for whatever comes our way including, worst case scenario, we need to pivot to distance learning in larger numbers.”
Classes begin for the second semester on Jan. 3 for Garfield Re-2 and Jan. 4 for Roaring Fork.
Reporter Rich Allen can be reached at 970-384-9131 or firstname.lastname@example.org.