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Polis, Denver-area superintendents share plans for reopening schools

Gov. Jared Polis and several metro-area superintendents spoke at separate news conferences Tuesday to detail a roadmap for returning to in-person learning in spring.

DENVER — On-site testing for those who are symptomatic, contact tracing, symptom screening, cohorts, handwashing, ventilation and mask-wearing are among the tools schools will leverage to return to in-person learning in 2021.

That's according to Gov. Jared Polis, who provided an update Tuesday on the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and detailed a plan for returning K-12 students to in-person learning. 

"[The] roadmap on how to get kids successfully back in school...uses data, science, transparency," Polis said, adding that it is important for schools to use the tools concurrently to safely reopen.

Polis said on-site rapid testing at schools will allow symptomatic students to be tested immediately and staff to determine any necessary quarantine periods for a student who tests positive for COVID-19.

Polis was joined by Colorado Commissioner of Education Katy Anthes and Heath Harmon and Rebecca Holmes, the co-chairs of the back-to-school working group that was created last month with the aim of getting as many students as possible back to in-person learning by January. 

"It's critical to identify those who have COVID," Harmon said. "Realistically, that's going to be one of those pieces that's critically important."

Anthes said using the layered tools enables schools to prioritize in-person learning.

"We [also] hope that our communities stand up and continue to do their hard work...the less community spread, the safer going back to school is," she said.

"When you have layered protections, that's critically important and in fact it does create a low-risk environment," Harmon added.

Polis also reiterated that teachers and educators will be provided with vaccines in Phase Two of the state's distribution plan, meaning sometime in late winter or early spring. A second dose of the vaccine will be required three weeks to 30 days later to achieve 94.5%-95% immunity.

RELATED: Colorado rolls out COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan

Asked why teachers aren't included in Phase One of the vaccination distribution plan, Polis said the goal is to prioritize saving lives first and ending the pandemic second.

"It's absolutely critical to protect people with higher fatality rates," Polis said. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) data show that the highest mortality rates from COVID-19 occur in people over age 65.

Many Colorado school districts made the shift to fully remote learning in November due to widespread community transmission of the virus. 

Denver-area superintendents 

Also on Tuesday, Denver-area superintendents hosted a news conference to share lessons learned from months of learning during the pandemic and plans to resume in-person learning in the spring. 

While there are about 400,000 students enrolled in public schools in the Denver-metro area, Dr. Bill Burman, executive director of Denver Public Health and co-chair of Metro Denver Partnership for Health, said schools can be a safe place and do not drive transmission rates. 

However, if community spread is high it will affect schools as positive cases from home or elsewhere are brought into classrooms. 

Outgoing Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susana Cordova said the biggest challenge she's experienced so far is operating schools while dealing with so many staff in quarantine. 

Chris Gdowski, superintendent of Adams 12 Five Star Schools, added that at one point, his district saw nearly 30% of staff out on quarantine at one time.

That lack of available staff for in-person learning forced many schools into remote learning over the last nine months. Gdowski said because of that, different schools will resume in-person learning at different times as they navigate staffing. 

Burman stressed that education and health are related, calling them two sides of the same coin and really encouraged the return of in-person learning, especially for younger students. 

He said the concept of layered protection works – testing, masks, social distancing and contact tracing – and that with the introduction of vaccines in the state, he's seen "a noticeable boost" in just 24 hours of the mental health in the community. 

Most districts have been working with COVIDCheck Colorado to provide free testing for teachers. Mike Johnston, president and CEO of Gary Community Investments, runs the organization and said more than 150,000 teachers have been tested since August. 

That same organization will now provide testing for students, which Cordova said will allow students and staff to test out of quarantine after seven days.

The superintendents also addressed the mental health of teachers, saying the constant transition between in-person and remote learning is extremely hard.

"Everyone is struggling," said Corey Wise, interim superintendent of Douglas County Public Schools. "Our teachers, staff and students."

With new data that Burman said shows young children have lower risks of contracting and transmitting COVID-19, along with plans for testing students and the possibility of shortened quarantine durations, the superintendents are hopeful and eager to return to in-person learning. 

However, they still face concerns about budgets and the time it will take for teachers to be fully vaccinated – educators are currently in phase two of the state's distribution plan. 

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RELATED: Task force aims to get Colorado students back in classrooms by January

RELATED: 'I'm feeling great': Respiratory therapist receives Colorado's first COVID-19 vaccine

The state's first COVID-19 vaccines were administered to frontline health-care workers Monday afternoon after Colorado received its first shipment of Pfizer's vaccine earlier in the day. 

The state lab received 975 doses, UCHealth Poudre Valley received 3,900 doses and Memorial Hospital in Colorado Springs received 3,900. Deliveries are expected to continue on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week to the remaining recipient sites.

People who have direct contact with COVID-19 patients for 15 minutes or more, such as emergency room workers and staff at long-term care facilities, will get first priority on being vaccinated.

They will be followed by additional healthcare workers, staff at dental offices, hospice workers and first responders, who are all included in the first phase of the three-phase distribution plan.

RELATED: Colorado rolls out COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan

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