Eagle County issues public health order to contain outbreak at Cornerstone Christian School

Outbreak at Roaring Fork Valley school at least 14 cases and one death among staff, according to county

Nate Peterson
Vail Daily
From left, Eagle County Attorney Bryan Treu and commissioners Matt Scherr and Kathy Chandler-Henry listen to Heath Harmon, the county’s public health director, at Thursday’s emergency meeting of the board of health in Eagle.
Nate Peterson/Vail Daily

EAGLE — The Eagle County commissioners on Thursday signed a public health order directed at Cornerstone Christian School in Basalt to contain an ongoing COVID-19 outbreak that has reached 14 cases.

The signing of the order came at the close of an emergency meeting of the Eagle County Board of Health. Any person at the private Christian school who fails to comply with the order is subject to penalties ranging from fines up to $5,000 and jail time up to 18 months.

The hourlong meeting included a presentation by Heath Harmon, the county’s public health director, who provided a timeline of the county’s requests for the school to come into compliance with public health reporting of positive cases at the school. School board members Jonathan Jones, Norman Bacheldor and Amanda Pond, who is also a third-grade teacher at the campus, expressed contrition for the situation while also stating that the school hasn’t been lax about taking COVID-19 precautions.

“We don’t take this lightly. We’re not careless,” Bacheldor said.

Pond said as a staff member at the school, “I can say we’re meeting weekly and communicating protocols and what we need to be doing in our classroom and how we need to be taking temps of the kids when they come in and sanitizing at lunchtime and after lunch.”

The emergency meeting came a little more than a month after the Rev. Jim Tarr of Cornerstone Christian Church appealed to Eagle County Commissioners Kathy Chandler-Henry, Jeanne McQueeney and Matt Scherr to let his school determine its own policy on masks for students based on its religious status.

Tarr, who also is president of Cornerstone Christian School, which is located along Colorado Highway 82 between El Jebel and Basalt, said the parents of students at the school should determine whether masks should be required rather than Eagle County’s department of public health.

“In the role of society, children are not created to be obedient to any other system of government except for the wishes of their parents,” Tarr said on Sept. 30.

Tarr was not present at Thursday’s meeting because he was at home struggling with a case of COVID-19, Pond said. A longtime staff member at the school has died — likely the 32nd and most recent county resident to succumb to the virus since the outbreak began.

“Late in the afternoon of November 1, 2021, Cornerstone provided a partial and incomplete response to the ECPHE inquiry,” according to the order. “The correspondence from Cornerstone indicated that between October 1, 2021 and October 31, 2021, eleven (11) Cornerstone students and staff have reported positive cases of COVID-19, with one staff member now being deceased. None of those reports had been received by ECPHE in advance of this inquiry.”

And, as Jones explained to commissioners, the school’s inability to meet deadlines set by Harmon to come into compliance was, in part, due to the school’s administrator and secretary being in quarantine with COVID-19.

“Some of the issues that we faced right away, one of the individuals who was positive for COVID was our administrator at the school,” Jones explained. “With that being the case, trying to acquire this information without passwords and things like that, it was really just a hard situation to be in. The delay in the process was not us trying to not comply, it was just a logistical issue that we faced.”

Fighting over masks

Tarr took his case directly to the commissioners at their Sept. 30 meeting after he was told by the Eagle County Health Department the private Christian school must adhere to an indoor mask mandate that was extended Sept. 16 for all schools in the county. The order that has since been extended to Dec. 17 as incidents rates remained elevated.

Eagle County’s COVID-19 incidence rate has risen from 187 cases per 100,000 on Oct. 22 to 318 cases per 100,000 as of Thursday.

Cornerstone Principal Emily Lambert submitted her resignation after the school determined it would defy the public health order. A meeting that was called for parents after Lambert’s resignation became “very polarizing” with “anti-maskers versus maskers,” a parent said.

Bacheldor made a point not to rehash the debate over masks Thursday, but he made clear that the school had managed the pandemic well before the current outbreak, with no major disruptions.

“During the height of COVID, we were maybe the only school that was able to stay open the whole time,” he said. “We had no outbreak at all. We didn’t have a COVID case. So we felt pretty good that we were pretty careful about what we were doing. I don’t know if we were less careful this time, but certainly the results were not the same as last year.”

Cornerstone Christian School is on Highway 82 in the Roaring Fork Valley between Basalt and El Jebel. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The current outbreak at the school first came to the attention of county officials last month after a complaint was filed to the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office. An initial investigation, with the help of public health departments in Garfield and Pitkin counties, led to the determination of four confirmed cases at the school, with more suspected.

Harmon’s office sent a letter Oct. 29 seeking cooperation with its investigation that asked the school to supply data about COVID-19 testing at the school for students and staff, details about any positive cases, copies of exposure notifications sent to families and Cornerstone staff, and student contact information.

The deadline for the school to provide the information was Oct. 30 at 2 p.m., which school officials failed to meet. The school did provide a partial and incomplete response by the afternoon of Nov. 1 with the information that between Oct. 1 and Oct. 31, 11 students and staff members had reported positive cases, with one staff member dying from the virus.

Harmon mentioned Thursday that three more cases have emerged in the past two days, bringing the total to 14. And he also stated that the school’s inability to meet the Oct. 30 deadline came over a weekend in which a fall festival was held at the campus on Halloween, despite knowledge of the large number of COVID-19 cases and exposures associated with the school, with no known adequate mitigation processes and procedures in place.

Going to e-learning

To get the outbreak under control, the school has notified the county that it is moving students to e-learning. It had already moved certain cohorts to remote learning before the county had issued its letter Oct. 29.

“The protocols that were in place, as far as quarantining if anyone said they were sick, had symptoms, things like that, all of that was still happening,” Jones said. “I think it’s important that everyone know that it was not a situation where we weren’t doing anything at all. If someone reported an illness, they went home.”

The public health order that commissioners signed Thursday makes absolutely clear what the school needs to do when students and staff return. The school must report all positive cases of students and staff, it must report all previously requested information from the county, it must follow quarantine and isolation procedures for those who test positive or show symptoms, and face coverings will be required inside the school for those over the age of 2.

The order also says the school must cease and desist from tests performed by staff for other staff and students, and anyone who has not had a positive COVID-19 test in the past 90 days must be tested upon returning to school after quarantines have expired. Those who haven’t had a positive test in 90 days must also be tested two times a week until the order is expired or rescinded.

The school also cannot host any events for staff or students until the order is rescinded.

“I think it’s so important to have kids in the classroom, for the families and things like that,” Jones said. “But I think it’s absolutely necessary that we get this separation, as mentioned. In this process, it’s been a huge learning experience for all of us. I would just really reiterate that our intent was not to delay. Not to be an issue to the county. It was really logistical issues that we faced. The whole week has been a whirlwind for me.”

He added: “Our intent is to absolutely keep our students safe.”

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