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Colorado stops publicly reporting COVID outbreaks at K-12 schools, looks to ‘normalize’ process

Students make their way to lunch down the main hallway at Steamboat Springs Middle School on Sept. 20, 2021, in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.  (Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post/TNS)
By Jessica Seaman The Denver Post The Denver Post

DENVER – Colorado’s health department stopped publicly sharing data on COVID-19 outbreaks at K-12 schools this week, roughly a month before many students and teachers return to the classroom.

The move, which caught at least some metro-area districts by surprise, is part of a broader rollback in what outbreak data will be posted online every Wednesday by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which said it is seeking to “normalize” the process of COVID-19 reporting and treat it as the agency does other illnesses, such as the flu.

The health agency said schools still should notify families of any outbreaks that arise.

But representatives for state and local teachers unions expressed concerns over whether the lack of publicly accessible data could hamper districts’ efforts to respond quickly to a surge in coronavirus cases – or even parents’ ability to judge whether they want their children to wear masks at school.

“Our focus at this phase in our pandemic response is really about preventing severe outcomes in priority settings,” said Ginger Stringer, epidemiology response program manager for the health department. “It’s not that we’re not addressing COVID in schools.”

The implications the change in data reporting could have on schools when the 2022-23 academic year begins remain unclear. The health department already significantly loosened its guidance for schools earlier this year, reducing the scenarios in which students and employees had to quarantine after exposure to the virus and letting districts end their contact tracing efforts.

Districts, including Denver Public Schools and the Douglas County School District, had already stopped requiring students and employees to wear masks in school buildings by the time classes let out for the summer.

There was confusion this week as the state Department of Public Health and Environment announced it was reducing the outbreak data it reports to the public, with some school districts unaware the change was coming – and at least one that thought the agency already had made the change months ago.

“We had no idea that CDPHE was no longer going to be reporting that data,” said Kimberly Eloe, spokeswoman for Jeffco Public Schools.

“They certainly have not reached out to us to date about some sort of collaboration to work in partner with us on how to communicate outbreaks to parents.”

Stephanie Faren, director of health services for Boulder Valley School District, said she thought the state health department had stopped reporting K-12 outbreaks to the public around March.

Her recollection was the health department changed the number of cases that make up an outbreak from five to a “cluster,” which doesn’t require a specific count of infections.

“There was no longer a definition for school outbreaks and so in response to that there would be no longer outbreaks reported by CDPHE in K-12 settings,” Faren said.

While the health department changed its guidance on how schools approach COVID-19 outbreaks, it continued to post new school-based outbreaks and backlogged data from the omicron surge on its public website through the spring, Stringer said.

“The definition of an outbreak in a school at this point is any increase of a baseline (of infections),” Stringer said.

Schools are still required to report COVID-19 outbreaks to public health agencies.

Administrators at Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, “were aware there was some discussion at the state level” of ending publicly reporting outbreak data, but they didn’t know it had been finalized when it was rolled out this week, spokesman Scott Pribble said.

“Denver Public Schools is still finalizing our plan for the upcoming school year, but we will continue to work with our partners at the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment and will follow their guidance,” he said in a statement.

When asked about the confusion among school districts, Stringer said the health department didn’t think about the changes in data reporting in the context of schools because it wasn’t updating its guidance on how they should respond to the transmission of the virus.

“CDPHE plans to update school guidance to encourage schools to communicate with parents and guardians about how they plan to communicate case outbreak status to their students and families,” said Therese Pilonetti, education setting expert lead for the health department, in a statement.

Outbreak reporting changes

Outbreaks at schools have dropped in recent months as children are on summer break, but during a peak in March they made up 419 – or 37% – of the 1,130 active outbreaks listed on the state’s COVID-19 data website. Last week, 87 of the 562 active outbreaks reported by the Department of Public Health and Environment were at schools.

Zero schools were listed among the state’s active COVID-19 outbreak data on Wednesday as the health department’s changes went into effect.

The health department is still publicly reporting COVID-19 outbreaks in high-risk spaces, including nursing homes, correctional facilities and day care centers. And while outbreaks in other settings are still reportable to state and local public health officials, the health department will no longer conduct case investigations in what it calls “non-priority settings,” according to a news release announcing the changes.

“We will continue tracking all outbreaks as before, but are transitioning the public display of COVID-19 outbreak data to focus on high-risk settings where public health determines there is a high risk of severe outcomes or challenges controlling transmission,” the agency said in a statement.

The health department doesn’t need to know about every case in order to respond to the virus spreading in a school and the outbreak data was delayed, Stringer said.

The best thing schools can do ahead of the incoming academic year is to encourage employees and students to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, including getting the latest booster shots as they become available, Stringer said. Anyone older than 6 months is eligible for the initial shots and children 5 years and older can get boosters.

“COVID’s not over”

Transmission of the coronavirus remains high and a new variant of the virus – called BA.5 – appears to be breaking through the immune system more often than its predecessors, leading to uncertainty about the trajectory of the pandemic. The rise in home COVID-19 tests has also made it harder to track the spread of the virus as fewer results are reported to state health departments.

One of the concerns about the changes in reporting is whether it will lead schools to respond more slowly to potential outbreaks and that it could lead to less information for parents about how prevalent the virus is in their children’s school, said Rob Gould, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.

“It’s a surprise and it’s concerning in the fact that COVID’s not over,” he said.

Denver schools faced significant staffing challenges last year as educators became sick and the district was unable to find enough substitute teachers to cover for them, leading classes to temporarily be canceled, he said.

“We believe that it’s very important that our schools are safe places for both our students and our educators,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, the statewide teachers union.

“One of the things with this in particular – there’s not a lot of clarity on what this actually means,” she said of the changes in data reporting.

Jeffco Public Schools has protocols in place to report outbreaks of other illnesses, such as measles, and will use those processes to notify parents about COVID-19. A key part of the school’s messaging when classes resume next month will be focused on reminding parents to keep their children home if they are feeling sick, Eloe said.

“Every district is probably doing something a little bit differently depending on their relationship with their local public health agency,” said Faren, with the Boulder school district, adding, “We will continue to share messages with families if we have what we believe is a higher number than typical of illness in a classroom or in a school.”