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Q&A: Cherry Creek Superintendent talks about data-driven approach to return to learning

With classes beginning on August 17, we asked Superintendent Scott Siegfried about his plans to keep students and staff safe this fall.

ARAPAHOE COUNTY, Colo. — On Monday, students of Cherry Creek School District will return to classes. 

Superintendent Scott Siegfried told 9NEWS that 10,500 of them have opted to return in a fully remote model. 

9NEWS sat down with Siegfried to learn what classes would look like for the PreK through 5th graders returning to 100% in-person learning, and 6th through 12th graders returning to a blended model.

(Editor's note: Responses have been edited for context and clarity.)

9NEWS: You say your district is the first "in Colorado to develop a data-based, decision-making process." What does that mean?

Superintendent Scott Siegfried, Cherry Creek School District: I was seeing was a lot of decisions being made for different reasons. I was trying to find a way to make decisions based truly on what is happening with the virus in our community. Really, a safe community allows for schools. I was trying to take the pressure out of it, politics out of it, the perception out of it. I didn’t want to do something just because somebody else had done it or another place had done it. So, I really looked at what are those big data points that the state has identified to say it’s safer now and this is okay to go forward? I Just spent some time looking at that information and developed this approach and put some numbers to it and we found success in it."

What are the key metrics you are looking at with this data-driven process?

Siegfried: I looked at what the governor and CDPHE had put out as far as stay-at-home, safer-at-home, and protect your neighbors. There’s some specific variance language to move from safer-at-home to protect your neighbors. I looked at those data points that CDPHE identified. I used those same data points. So, the number of cases, the incidence rate per 100,000, the positivity rate, hospitalizations. I developed a scale based on each one of those to add up to a total of eight points. If we’re at a four or better for a sustained period of time, then we’re in person. If it drops down for a sustained period of time, then we’re going remote. 

You mention the current political climate, why is it so important for you to base your decisions in science?

Siegfried: I think science and data have to drive everything we do especially at this time with the pandemic. Everyone reads something different; everyone potentially believes something different. It’s important to look at what is actually happening in our community. How is the spread occurring here to make decisions about how safe schools would be. I get hundreds of emails a day. Half of them say, 'don’t you dare open.' The other half say, 'you better darn well open.' To get that information and put it in a data-based approach was the only way to truly make sense out of this.

How do you handle so many different responses and opinions within your community?

Siegfried: It’s hard. It’s hard. What I worry about is that education is becoming politicized. It's the last thing that should be. Our kids should not be politicized. That’s part of also developing this data-based approach. It just takes everything else out of it. We’re truly looking at how are people handling the virus in Arapahoe county. If, as a community, we’re doing a good job, we’re doing the right thing, then the data will show the virus spread is low and we can have schools. If we choose not to, then kids will be back home.

We know schools do not exist in a vacuum, what emphasis are you putting on the community aspect of this?

Siegfried: How we behave, the decisions we make today, will determine how long kids are in school. Whether everybody where’s a mask, whether they stay physically distanced, whether they stay out of large gatherings, that will determine what school looks like this year. So, it truly is the community because none of the metrics that I’ve developed measure what happens in schools. They measure what happens around our schools because our teachers come in and our kids come in. What’s happening in our community is what schools will look like. It’s critically important. I will tell our community again; do the right thing because that will matter for how schools look this year.

As it stands now, what will a school day look like this year?

Siegfried: There are two pieces. The data shows us whether the spread is low and whether we can come to school. The second part is what have we done to meet or exceed all health guidance. 

We’ve gone down that list. We’re requiring masks for all students. Of course, we’ll be developmentally appropriate and treat a kindergartener differently than an 18-year-old. Our teachers are great at that and they always have been and always will be. We are increasing ventilation. We bought MERV 13 filters. We have one-way hallways. All of our families had the choice to do 100% online learning. In fact, we have 10,500 students signed up for that. We built that school in three weeks for 10,500 kids. That leaves fewer kids back at our other schools and they’re more able to spread out. In our secondary level, we went to the hybrid so we could truly support that physical distancing that’s more important for other kids. At the elementary level, it’s more of a focus on cohorts and masks. We were able to implement all of that.

We’ve implemented all of the health guidance 100% and exceeded it in many ways. We’re offering free COVID tests to all of our staff twice a month because it all comes together with part of the multiple overlapping safety strategies that we’ve put in place to ensure that we can be as safe as possible. There are no guarantees but as safe as possible given these two things and how they come together.

Do you feel you can keep students and staff safe as they go back to school?

Siegfried: We’ve met every health department requirement. So, safe? Yes. Is it a guarantee of anything? I can never guarantee anything. You can’t do that in life. We’ve met every requirement to provide safe schools outlined by our state and by the federal government. This is the right time. I’ve told our community, don’t wait to have daycare plans in place because if the data shows something else, I won’t hesitate to send our kids and our teachers back home. 

How do your new filters work and how are those being paid for?

Siegfried: We increased our filters to a MERV 13 filter. It’s a hospital grade filter. It’s costing us some money and we’re using our CARES funding from the federal government to support that, at least through December because those funds have to be spent by December. We’re increasing the fresh air intake by 25% daily. We already had it at a certain percent, we’ve increased it by a quarter throughout the day so we can continue to have fresh air come in and have it filtered. 

How are you cohorting students?

Siegfried: Cohorting looks different at different ages. In elementary school, it’s easy to cohort a class of kids. The school looks that way already. The group will be together 95% or 98% of the time. That’s a tight cohort. When you look at high school, it’s hard to cohort kids because they really need different classes based on their skills and their needs. So, if you truly cohort a high school, then you’re babysitting. We need to give kids the classes they need to continue with their future. It’s harder to cohort that tightly at the high school, middle school as it is in elementary. We use different overlapping strategies for safety at different levels.

What protocols are in place for when a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19?

Siegfried: New guidance came out from CDPHE yesterday. It helps us flow chart through what that looks like. It’s even more complicated than just a positive test. They’re having us look at any student or staff that’s symptomatic, a runny nose, a stomachache, diarrhea, anything that could potentially align with what COVID looks like. As I look at our data from last year, we had 6,387 students come to school the first 30 days with one of those symptoms. That was pre-COVID. If that comes forward, there’s a lot of students we have to look at and track and get them care and potentially a test to either prove it is or prove it’s not. That determines the impact on the rest of the kids in the classroom. If it is a positive test, we will track and look at the interactions that student had. Who have they had close contact with? Is it an elementary student and it’s just that small class? Is it a high school student that’s been part of athletics and class? We have to look at all of that. We’re working closely with Tri-county to make sure that we do it and do it well.

Are you concerned by what you're seeing in other states that have opened schools? 

Siegfried: If we were in Georgia, or Florida, or Texas, we would not be having school because there is a different community spread there than there is in Arapahoe County. It wouldn’t be a question. The data would show clearly that we should not be in school. They shouldn’t have started school. They also didn’t start with things like we have with face masks, distancing, with a hybrid model so kids can be six feet apart. Will it be perfect in every single moment of every single day? No, we’re human beings. But if we were in those places, I would not be starting school because it’s not safe. Our data is different here because our community has handled this differently than a lot of other places in the country.

I see and I read all the stories and I pay attention but health guidance comes very clearly from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to Tri-County, to the Cherry Creek School District. I don’t go out and seek guidance from CNN or from FOX. It has to be vetted fully through the health departments before it becomes guidance. 

What feedback have you received from teachers?

Siegfried: We’ve collaborated with our teachers from day one. We started planning in April and they were integral to our conversations. In fact, our teachers’ association voted overwhelmingly to support our return to school agreement and to start in person if the data showed it and the data does. So, we’ve worked well with them. They’re very supportive and they want to be back in the classroom with kids. They also want to be safe. We’ve met or exceeded every health department requirement as we move forward. We also have remote learning as an option. So, 10,500 students gave a lot of teachers the opportunity to also be online. If they themselves had an underlying condition, they could have applied to be there as well.

What kind of workload can teachers expect this fall?

Siegfried: Our teachers are either teaching their in-person kids or, if they go remote, they’ll teach those same kids remotely. They’re not having to teach both ways. Teachers that are online are fully teaching students online. We did not have them do double duty. We had them teach and do their best for the kids that are in front of them whether that’s online or in-person.

RELATED: Cherry Creek Schools will open for in-person learning on Aug. 17

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