Largest COVID-19 outbreak in Garfield County forces Ross Montessori School online
A week ahead of Thanksgiving break, Ross Montessori School in Carbondale shut its doors early.
The largest reported COVID-19 outbreak in Garfield County since the pandemic began led the K-8 charter school to move to remote learning for the week, starting Monday.
According to Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment data, 46 students — nearly 15% of its enrollment — and 10 staff members have tested positive for COVID since Oct. 11. According to Nov. 11 data, the cumulative 56 cases is the highest individual reported outbreak in Garfield County, topping the 55 from the E. Dene Moore Care Center in Rifle in November 2020.
A letter sent to parents by the school showed 20 positive tests from students and six from staff over the past two weeks. As of Nov. 16, 10 students and one staff member were still in quarantine, according to the school.
The plan is for classes to resume in person Nov. 29, following Thanksgiving break.
“I know the school is going to do everything operationally to try to be in person,” Ross Montessori Board of Directors President Paul Smith said. “We’re like everyone else hoping that the delta variant wave passes through and that our families that decide that they want to get vaccinations for their children 5 to 11 years old have an opportunity to do that with this two-week break.”
No middle school students tested positive as of the Nov. 11 letter, but 10 of the 11 elementary level classes had at least one student test positive.
The school does not mandate vaccinations for students or staff but implemented mask requirements, cohort isolation and ventilation measures. It declined offering specific vaccination rates, but said they were “high” in the letter to parents.
“Since our state does not require the COVID immunization for children, we only know if parents inform us,” Ross Montessori Head of School Sonya Hemmen said. “They are not required to tell us.”
In the Nov. 11 letter, it rejected the idea of hosting a vaccination clinic at the school. Two parents had requested an on-site vaccination clinic, which goes against school philosophy, according to the letter.
“We have zero interest in this or any other immunization program,” reads the letter, signed by Hemmen and the board of directors. “We want to assure you that it is not consistent with our role as a school and not a health facility to poke students with needles.”
Ross Montessori is one of three local schools with an active outbreak as described by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment in its most recent report.
Grand Valley High School in Parachute reported 18 cases cumulatively — 17 of them students — after initial reporting on Oct. 19. According to Garfield County Public Health, the Grand Valley outbreak was considered resolved Monday. It was the second-largest outbreak at a school in the county, following Ross Montessori’s.
Active outbreaks are marked as resolved by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment following 28 days of no new cases.
Cornerstone Christian School in Basalt reportedly had 17 cumulative cases as of Nov. 10, including the death of a longtime staff member. The school faces a public health order from Eagle County that controls how students and staff who have positive tests can become eligible for returning to school.
Ross Montessori does not face any public health orders and voluntarily opted to temporarily shutter its doors, working closely with Garfield County Public Health once a staff member tested positive in late September, school officials said.
The school reportedly had enough healthy staff members to stay open but followed requests of staff to move online “for additional time to recover from illness,” the letter states. It took similar action the week before winter break last year due to COVID cases, Smith said.
The school did not set any benchmarks for returning to in-person and is intent on resuming classes as normal following the break.
“At a Montessori school, we simply cannot replicate what happens in a classroom at home,” Ross Montessori Teaching Coach Mandi Franz said. “What we have in our classroom and what our teachers do regularly and the communication that happens among students and the collaboration, it simply is best done in person.”
Garfield County Public Health wanted to emphasize that travel over Thanksgiving break could exacerbate a worsening trend in COVID-19 cases.
“Comparing to this time a year ago, where vaccines were just becoming a tool we could use to decrease cases, we’re almost back to that level with case loads,” Garfield County Public Health spokeswoman Carrie Godes said. “It’s an important time to remind families congregating, parents working that it impacts your household. It impacts your school, your place of employment as well as your family.”
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The new omicron COVID-19 variant officially arrived in Colorado on Thursday, though Pitkin County remains free of the feared new mutation. So far.