Aspen School District adapts policies as student COVID case counts follow wave of county surge |

Aspen School District adapts policies as student COVID case counts follow wave of county surge

Online options, shortened COVID-19 isolation period in store

An Aspen School District bus parked in front of Aspen Middle School on Wednesday, August 26, 2020.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

As Pitkin County goes, so goes the school system — with COVID-19 case numbers, anyway.

A recent surge in local cases in Pitkin County also made for a relatively proportional bump in case counts among school-aged children and an uptick in teacher and staff cases, according to Pitkin County Public Health’s COVID-19 data dashboards.

Much-higher-than-usual case counts bookended a holiday week with the highest number of student cases this academic year. The county recorded 18 student cases the week of Dec. 19-25, followed by 37 student cases the week of Dec. 26-Jan. 1 and 12 student cases the week of Jan. 2-8. The vast majority of those cases were contracted due to exposure outside of school or child care settings. (Most students were on winter break when those stats were recorded; the numbers account for all school-aged kids in Pitkin County, not just those in the Aspen School District.)

Pitkin County student case counts averaged a little more than five cases per week from Aug. 22 through Dec. 18.

High case counts, district quarantine policies, concerns about the long-term health effects of the virus and looming final exams prompted Aspen High School students to organize a successful online petition for more virtual learning options last week.

Students hoped more virtual options would ensure they wouldn’t miss out on “a crucial week of studying” before finals and could choose a learning option that might be “necessary for their health and peace of mind.”

The petition garnered more than 250 supporters in a single day (the total count by midday Jan. 9 was 286) and was shared with high school principal Sarah Strassburger. As of Jan. 5, teachers had posted Zoom or Google Meet links for their classes on the learning management system Schoology, she wrote.

The virtual option is intended for students who feel well enough to attend class but who need to stay home in isolation or quarantine due to COVID-19 or another illness, according to Strassburger. The technology was available all year but wasn’t universally implemented until last week in response to the recent spike in cases and concerns from students.

“Once we realized the impact of omicron on our students and their ability to attend school, teachers were happy to get these links up and students Zooming into classes,” Strassburger wrote.

At this point, all classes in the school district remain primarily in-person, though staffing shortages exacerbated by COVID-19 case numbers mean that “online schooling could become a very real possibility, for at least a little while,” according to a Dec. 31 school health and safety update from the district.

There were 13 teacher/staff cases recorded in the county between the first week of school and Dec. 18, then eight more in the past three weeks, according to the county’s data dashboard. (As with student case counts, those stats account for all teachers and staff in the county, not just those in the district.)

District Director of Human Resources Amy Littlejohn said on a Friday phone call that a “fairly healthy” substitute teacher pool — “healthy” in terms of both a lack of COVID-19 cases and in overall headcount — has helped ensure classroom coverage so far.

The pool includes about 80 active substitutes. However, most substitute between one and five days per month and far fewer tend to pick up shifts at the high school than at the elementary and middle schools, resulting in “many unfilled substitute vacancies” at the high school, Littlejohn wrote in a Jan. 12 email.

Littlejohn also expressed hopes in the phone interview last week that COVID-19 cases come in rounds rather than all at once.

“We’re kind of holding our breath and hoping that we’re going to be able to keep the lights on with with the current guidance and have everyone stay home while they’re sick and then bring them back as soon as we can and then anticipate there might be other people going out,” Littlejohn said.

“As soon as we can” just got a bit sooner, too: Students, teachers and staff in kindergarten through 12th grade only have to isolate for five days if they test positive and are asymptomatic or only have mild illness and symptoms are resolving, the district announced in a Jan. 7 school health and safety update.

The policy aligns with new isolation guidance released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just before the new year. The district was still following a 10-day isolation policy for the first week back at school because the five-day rule did not yet apply to schools; the CDC updated its K-12 guidance Jan. 6.

Continued masking is still required for the five days after the shortened isolation period, according to the CDC. The district already has a universal indoor mask mandate in place.

There is no requirement for a negative test to return to school after a positive COVID-19 case, but the district communications noted that testing is “highly recommended.”

The district can administer free rapid antigen tests to students or staff who want or need one as long as supplies are available. District nurse Robin Strecker is overseeing those tests for students, and the human resources department is overseeing those tests for staff, Littlejohn said.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that while the overall pool of substitutes for Aspen School district is “healthy” with 80 active subs on hand, many substitute between one and five days per month and fewer of those substitutes pick up jobs at the high school than the middle and elementary schools, according to a series of Jan. 12 emails from Director of Human Resources Amy Littlejohn. In turn, the high school has experienced a high rate of unfilled substitute vacancies.

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