Montrose County School DIstrict has revised school policies to align with new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Fully vaccinated students and staff are not required to quarantine following exposure at school. For the unvaccinated and people due for a booster shot, the quarantine period after being in close contact with someone who tests positive has been cut in half to five days — but for the next five days, they should wear a mask while around others.
People who test positive can also return to school after five days of isolation, but are required to wear a mask for the following five days, regardless of vaccination status.
“We don’t think that it’s a huge burden to ask COVID positive individuals to wear a mask for five days if they’re coming back,” district spokesperson Matt Jenkins said. “If folks are uncomfortable with that, they can elect to return on day 11 (after a positive test result) and they don’t need to wear a mask.”
Within a week of students returning to school after the holiday break, the amount of students and staff in quarantine is already nearing the highs reached last November when case counts in the county also reached record highs. On Jan. 11, MCSD reported 458 people in quarantine — 7.1% of students and 3.2% of staff.
Jenkins noted that the case rates in Montrose County often lag a few weeks behind urban areas in Colorado, where case rates have been skyrocketing since the beginning of this year. New reported cases of COVID in Montrose have begun to climb over the past week: 123 cases were reported Monday, while only five cases were reported on Dec. 20, 2021.
“We expected an increase in viral transmission, so it’s not a surprise. We’re working hard to be flexible and doing everything in our power to minimize the amount of time that kids are out of school and maximize the amount of time that they’re learning in person,” Jenkins said.
The omicron variant, which has quickly become the dominant variant in Colorado, is more transmissible than earlier variants. However, the severity of infection is usually lower, at least for vaccinated people.
The district is no longer providing a drive-through molecular testing site and is transitioning to relying more on rapid antigen tests, which deliver results in 15 minutes. While the molecular tests are more sensitive and accurate in detecting asymptomatic infection, they can sometimes take days for labs to process results.
Consumers around the country have found store shelves for COVID tests empty over the past few weeks. Jenkins said that the school district is also working on making sure it has enough tests stockpiled.
MCSD is collaborating with state agencies to create a “test to stay” program for students to avoid quarantining following exposure without committing to the existing weekly testing program, which is also run and funded by the state.
The regular program first started at Montrose High School and Olathe High School in November before expanding to all of the district’s schools after Thanksgiving, but reported participation rates before the holiday break were nowhere near the 70% participation threshold for a school community to avoid routine quarantines following exposure for people who remain asymptomatic.
District staff were informed that they would need to either be vaccinated or participate in the program in November and the Daily Press reported that staff could be terminated after five weeks of noncompliance.
The district later expanded the policy in mid-December to a total of eight options for staff to choose from — including applying for a religious mandate — and softened the stance on termination, instead emphasizing conversations with building leaders and human resources personnel. Over 93% of district staff have responded to the survey.
Jenkins said that the district is not considering transitioning to remote instruction at the moment.
“Presently, our number of COVID positive individuals on staff is not high enough to jeopardize in person instruction,” Jenkins said, adding that families should develop plans in case going to school is no longer feasible.
“This is not a new thing. We’ve been working hard and we’ve been operating school in a pandemic for 23 months now, so none of this is a surprise,” Jenkins said.
Anna Lynn Winfrey is a staff writer for the Montrose Daily Press.