Virus Outbreak Colorado Schools (copy)

Students in masks line up to enter the building for the first day of in-class learning since the start of the pandemic at Garden Place Elementary School in north Denver in August

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Elementary, middle and high schools across Colorado reported more than 500 new coronavirus cases this week, reflecting ongoing spread of the disease more than a month into the semester for many students.

At the same time, a state funded program that could catch cases early has seen limited interest in El Paso County and across the state.  

Outbreak data updated by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment on Wednesday show the number of active COVID-19 cases among students and staff statewide rose to 2,150, up from 1,583 cases the previous week. The number of active school cases this week is more than double the figure reported two weeks ago — 886.

El Paso County Public Health officials are tracking 459 active cases among local K-12 schools as of Wednesday, they said. State data updated Wednesday show El Paso County has 407 new cases in local schools this week, but the discrepancy comes from a delay in reporting between the county and state, department spokesman Jared Verner said Friday.

Still, El Paso County — the state’s second largest by population — leads Colorado with the highest numbers of active cases in local elementary, middle and high schools. Last week, the county had 358 total cases in schools, state data show.

All counties reporting more than 100 active school cases this week are among Colorado’s largest, with 100,000 or more residents. Douglas County has 336 total cases among K-12 schools, up from 305 last week. Larimer County has 236 active cases this week; Weld County, 149; Mesa County, 148; and Jefferson County, 101.

There are 56 active cases in Pueblo County schools, 45 in Denver County and 11 in Teller County, data show.

State and local public health officials in recent weeks have reiterated the effectiveness of masks at preventing infection, encouraging parents to mask their children in school and other public places.

State epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy said during a news conference Thursday there are fewer coronavirus cases in school districts that had mask mandates in place at the start of the school year.

“You can see that the lower case rates are associated with districts that are requiring masks in schools, again showing a clear impact that masks are having in decreasing transmission in our school settings,” she said.

The data included schools that reopened between Aug. 16-19 and excluded schools that changed their masking policies since the beginning of the school year, about 38% of Colorado public school enrollment.

El Paso, Larimer, Weld, Mesa and Teller counties have not enacted mask mandates in schools, although some local districts have issued their own, some after the start of the school year. Douglas County commissioners voted unanimously this month to leave the Tri-County Health Department — which provides public health services to Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas Counties — after a disagreement over the health department’s school mask mandate. Jefferson County requires people 3 and older wear masks indoors at all childcare settings and K-12 schools. In Pueblo County, people 2 and older must wear masks indoors at all childcare centers, youth camps and K-12 schools.

Per state public health guidelines in traditional classroom settings, quarantines are no longer required if two people who are wearing masks interact with each other and one of them is COVID-positive. Schools can also reduce quarantines if 80% or more of eligible students and staff are vaccinated or if at least 70% of their unvaccinated population receive weekly testing.

The state is also funding a free weekly COVID-19 testing program for all K-12 schools that can help them open, but it has seen low enrollment so far. In El Paso County, three schools have enrolled. Douglas, Larimer and Denver counties have had a handful of schools enroll in the program, state data show. Dozens of schools in Weld, Mesa and Jefferson counties are signed up to participate.

“Weekly testing can quickly detect positive cases, allowing individuals with COVID-19 to isolate and minimize spreading it to others,” a spokeswoman with the state health department said in an email to The Gazette. “That’s particularly important in areas where vaccination rates are low because disease transmission will be higher and more students will likely be infected.”

About 4,523 students have submitted parental consent at 207 schools that are actively testing, she said. In all, 479 schools are fully enrolled in the program she said, accounting for about 20% of the state’s more than 2,000 K-12 schools.

“The state needs more schools to get off the sidelines and enroll in this program and more parents to consent to having their children tested so that we can keep students, teachers and communities safe,” the spokeswoman said.

In El Paso County, Widefield School District 3 is not participating in the program because the district lacks the personnel to conduct it, spokeswoman Samantha Briggs said. The district’s mask mandate, implemented Sept. 7, has “allowed us to achieve our goal of keeping classrooms and schools open for in-person learning” because the district is not quarantining “healthy staff and students,” she said.

Colorado Springs Charter Academy has also enrolled in the program but hasn't yet rolled out testing, Head of School Dan Ajamian said. Fountain Valley School of Colorado, a private school, has also signed up for the program, according to state data.

Colorado Springs School District 11 is “still evaluating the viability of this program,” spokeswoman Debra Ashby said, though Academy ACL Charter School within the district has opted to participate. The state hasn't shown it can effectively administer 17,000 tests a day across all D-11 campuses “or support the 17,000 families needing to consent to participate,” Ashby said. The district has also experienced “a substantial decline” in COVID-19 cases and quarantines in its schools since the district implemented a mask mandate after Labor Day, she said.

D-11 is participating in the state’s free at-home test kit program for staff, Ashby said.

Colorado counties with K-12 schools added to the outbreak list this week include Alamosa, Custer, Garfield, Grand, Huerfano, Las Animas, Saguache and San Miguel. Moffatt County also joined the state outbreak list this week, with 77 new cases among four local schools.

Colorado Politics reporter Pat Poblete contributed to this article.

Reporter

Breeanna Jent covers El Paso County government. She previously worked as the editorial assistant for the Pikes Peak Newspapers and joined their sister paper, The Gazette, in 2020.

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