First day of school

The Gazette

Harrison School District 2 received approval Thursday to open a multidistrict online school in August. Students at Monterey Elementary School are pictured, above, on the first day of school last August.

A chorus, including our editorial voice, has been calling for a restoration of common sense in the way Colorado’s public schools respond to COVID-19. Yet, that chorus has been ignored all too often at too many of the state’s K-12 campuses over the past year.

An abundance of caution is one thing; much of the state’s public education establishment has erred on the side of outright overkill since instruction resumed, in theory, last fall. In fairness to the schools, of course, some of the overkill was imposed indirectly through standards set by state public health authorities.

Thus, it is a relief in many ways that the school year is winding down. With it, we hope, a lot of the overreaching strictures foisted on our children by schools will fade into history. We’ve had enough of the “new normal”; as summer approaches, we hope to see school kids embrace the normal of old. It’ll come not a moment too soon.

Last fall, in the thick of the COVID crisis, when the caseload was first climbing and then settling into a rhythm of spikes and dips, many school districts slammed on the brakes even if tapping them may have been sufficient. What began as a several-week hiatus from in-person learning at the beginning of the school year wound up lasting the rest of the fall semester for higher grade levels in school districts like Denver’s, the state’s largest.

Alongside that, entire fall sports seasons were postponed to the spring for outdoor sports like football and soccer, in which the potential for transmission of the virus was minimal for spectators as well as players.

As the pandemic plateaued then began a slow and steady taper amid the arrival of a COVID vaccine in the new year, a lot of school districts went from digging in their heels to foot dragging. Even though more and more of Colorado’s population was being vaccinated, and the virus at last seemed to be on the wane, schools stubbornly walked the straight and narrow.

Returning to class for middle and high schools in some districts amounted to little more than toting computers to schools, where students then did schoolwork online just as they did at home. Limited interactions with teachers; no socializing with classmates; no drinks or snacks. Spectators were at first banned from outdoor sporting events and then strictly limited. Players had to wear masks much of the time except when actually playing other teams.

Yet all of this while — in fact, throughout much of the pandemic — mounting data from around the country has led even top epidemiologists to conclude students actually were at minimal risk of contracting COVID on campus all along. And children and young adults generally aren’t at risk of serious complications if they catch the virus. Many who have caught it didn’t even know they’ve had it.

Meanwhile, another growing data set has pointed to a much greater peril to young people. All-online learning just hasn’t been working for too many kids. Grades have plummeted and so has basic learning. Young people who suddenly stopped socializing put friendships on hold. Morale has taken a nosedive. Around the country, suicides have risen. Mental health issues have skyrocketed.

So, it was a sign of hope last week when education news service Chalkbeat Colorado reported that the superintendents of 12 Denver metro school districts have asked state health officials to end mandatory quarantines for students exposed to COVID at school. It’s progress of a sort, though it’s noteworthy that ever-timid Denver Public Schools was not among the dozen.

As reported by Chalkbeat, the officials wrote a letter to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment last Monday, stating: “The protective health benefits for these students from quarantines have been small — and the costs to their development and academic progress have been great.” Those signing on included superintendents of some of the biggest districts: Jeffco Public Schools, Aurora Public Schools, Douglas County School District, Cherry Creek School District and Westminster Public Schools.

The practice of quarantining students simply for being in contact with COVID-infected students has bordered on the absurd. Data from 13 school districts cited in the superintendents’ letter reveals that as many as 3,000 students were quarantined in a given week — yet only 59 tested positive for COVID.

The letter urges state officials to do as other states that have dumped quarantines: Continue mask wearing, send home students and staff who test positive for COVID, and advise those with symptoms to stay home.

It’s a start down a more sensible path, even if it is a bit late in the game.

The Gazette Editorial Board

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