No plans for RFSD to offer COVID testing

John Stroud
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
Glenwood Springs High School students leave the school during their lunch break on the first day back to in school learning.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

The Roaring Fork School District does not have plans to follow suit with the neighboring Aspen School District to offer voluntary coronavirus testing for staff and students.

“At this time, we’re not considering testing our staff or students for a few reasons,” Roaring Fork Schools Public Information Officer (PIO) Kelsy Been said when asked that question after Aspen announced its plans last week.

“Garfield County Public Health is not advising us to test all staff and students, because testing is not a cure and it doesn’t change behavior,” Been said. “Additionally, it would require ample staff and resources to support testing, given the size of our school population.”

Both the Roaring Fork and Garfield Re-2 school districts have upward of 4,000 to 5,000 students, compared with about 2,000 in the Aspen public schools.

The Aspen district’s COVID-19 testing is seen as a way to catch positive cases sooner and keep more students in school, instead of having to send large groups of students to quarantine status when a case enters the school setting.

The oral-swab type tests are being paid for with the district’s remaining CARES Act money, which must be spent by the end of December.

Garfield County Public Health PIO Carrie Godes concurred that large-scale implementation of school student and staff testing in the larger downvalley school districts would be difficult.

“We do meet frequently with the Pitkin County Health Department and are interested in their school testing strategy,” Godes said. “However, right now the cost and the ability to maintain a program of this magnitude are not feasible for Garfield County.”

Godes said that all three school districts in Garfield County, including District 16 in Parachute-Battlement Mesa, continue to seek out best practices regarding the evolving pandemic.

“Because we know that testing is just one tool and has limitations, such as expense, turnaround time and accuracy, it is not likely to be used in the near future in this manner in Garfield County,” she said.

High school students return

Meanwhile, high schools in the Roaring Fork District returned to in-person classes Wednesday for the first time since the coronavirus outbreak began last March — just as Garfield County is seeing a major increase in new COVID-19 cases and an alarming upward trend in both the incidence and test positivity rates.

It was the third phase of the district’s return to in-person learning plan, which began with grades K-3 on Oct. 19 and grades 4-8 on Oct. 26.

“It was super to have the students back in the building,” Glenwood Springs High School Principal Paul Freeman said.

He noted, however, that the number of students is down about 200 students from the usual near-1,000 students at GSHS.

“That did mean we were able to have kind of a soft opening, where the hallways weren’t crowded,” Freeman said. “That makes it easier to manage the flow of people through the building, because of those smaller numbers.”

Districtwide, including Roaring Fork High School in Carbondale and Basalt High School, about 14.3% of students have decided to stay with distance learning instead of coming back to classes in person, Been said.

“It has been our experience that there is some back-and-forth on the actual percent of students we have (online versus in person) these first couple of weeks back,” she said.

Freeman said GSHS has the luxury of being able to separate its larger student population into groups and avoid interaction within the building, because there are two distinct levels.

A “lower floor/upper floor” classroom group format “seems to work out pretty well,” Freeman said.

“It was a great idea, and it was not mine,” he said, giving credit for the solution to Assistant Principal Pat Engle.

The lower/upper floor approach also allows the school to keep students in groups for two separate lunch periods, Freeman said.

However, once students are outside the building, he acknowledged that it’s hard to control person-to-person interaction.

“We would rather that they disperse instead of congregate,” Freeman said. “Just (Wednesday), I spoke to all of the students pressing home the point that it might start to feel normal, but this isn’t normal.

“The coronavirus remains dangerous, not just for them, but for all of us,” he said. “Students have to conduct themselves in a way that’s going to bring the least risk to the extended community.”

The quarantine game

Godes said schools in Garfield County, from elementary through high school, have become accustomed to the health-safety protocols that need to be in place to prevent the transmission of the coronavirus within the school setting.

“Schools have multiple systems in place for prevention, including identifying any student that is ill,” Godes said, adding, “There has not been any transmission of the virus within schools this school year.”

Individual cases of students or staff testing positive have resulted in several instances where groups of students and their teachers have gone into 14-day quarantine, per Garfield Public Health instructions, and back to online learning during that time.

“When a group or person is told to quarantine, a case investigation has revealed that it is necessary in that particular case,” Godes said. “It means that there is enough concern to warrant the quarantine.”

Godes said schools are taking precautions “very seriously,” and parents and students are doing their part during the school day.

“The cases where individuals have gotten sick have been from outside the school,” she said. “The majority of cases in Garfield County and statewide are coming from small personal gatherings, or from work environments where people feel comfortable with one another and let down their guards.”

Larger spaces where social distancing is easier and there is a requirement to wear a mask are less of a concern, Godes said.

“The increasing number of cases shows that even in our own homes, if multiple friends or family members come over, that is one of the riskiest positions to catch or spread the virus,” she said.