MCSD person putting on PPE (copy)

MCSD COVID Coordinator Nelly Carmack donning personal protective equipment to prepare for swabbing for COVID tests at the district-run site at the Montrose County Fairgrounds on Oct. 1, 2021. 

Unvaccinated Montrose County School District employees will be required to participate in a weekly COVID testing program starting Nov. 19. All district staff were notified in an email on Nov. 3, which was shared with the Daily Press.

Noncompliant staff members will first be issued a verbal warning and placed on unpaid administrative leave after the third week. If staff decline to participate in the testing program after the fifth week, they could be terminated.

“We absolutely don't want to lose good teachers, but what we're seeing is there's a significant additional cost burden that unvaccinated staff members are putting on us,” District spokesperson Matt Jenkins said.

As of Nov. 5, nearly 600 people in the school district are actively in quarantine, including 31 staff members and 564 students — 9.3% of all enrolled MCSD students. A major hotspot is Northside Elementary School, where nearly one in three students are currently quarantining.

Unvaccinated students and staff are required to quarantine for up to 10 days after potential exposure to COVID-19 at school. If a PCR test administered on or after the fifth day of quarantine is negative, then individuals can return to school before the 10-day period is over.

According to the email distributed to district employees, unvaccinated employees have missed a total of 808 days and forced the district to spend $59,000 on substitute teachers since the school year started in August.

Like many school districts around the country, MCSD is experiencing a shortage of substitute teachers. The Daily Press reported last month that the district raised the daily rate from $110 to $120, but some principals have been needing to step into classrooms when teachers are out.

“While we can quantify the financial impact of unvaccinated staff quarantines, the learning loss and disruption for student success may be even more adverse,” the letter says.

The new requirement comes as new COVID cases in Montrose County have reached all-time highs and the vaccination rate has stagnated at around half of eligible county residents.

After many delays, the state-funded program for weekly COVID testing will start in the district next Friday, Nov. 12 at Montrose High School and Olathe Middle/High School for staff as well as students, then expand to all other district schools by the end of the month at the latest.

Rapid antigen tests will be administered in this program, but the district’s ongoing testing program for the more-sensitive PCR molecular tests three times per week will still be in place.

Participants in the testing program will be exempt from quarantining after routine exposure, as long as they are asymptomatic. Fully vaccinated students and staff are also not required to quarantine after submitting documentation of inoculation.

The district is not requiring student participation in the testing program, which parents can choose to enroll their children into.

COVID-19 vaccinations are not being mandated for district staff or students.

“(Vaccination) is an individual's choice to make and we're not requiring that, but we are asking individuals employed with our organization to make a choice to either vaccinate or participate in non-invasive routine rapid COVID testing,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins estimated that 350-400 of the approximately 750 full-time district employees have been vaccinated.

“This is probably going to apply to 300-350 individuals, but our hope is that they agree that this is a non-invasive way to make sure they’re not bringing COVID onto campus and they do not have to quarantine,” Jenkins said.

The state is sponsoring financial incentives for participation in other districts — $25 for the first test and $10 each subsequent time — but MCSD decided to opt out of that element of the program to validate how regular testing can reduce the amount of mandatory quarantines and slow the spread of the virus, Jenkins explained.

“We're going to validate the need and the utility of that program and not get distracted by financial incentives, whether or not they're a good or bad thing,” Jenkins said.

The Pfizer COVID vaccine has been granted emergency use authorization for children between the ages 5-11 and Montrose children are now able to get inoculated. Along with the expanded eligibility and this testing program, Jenkins is hoping that less students will need to miss in-person school for at least a week.

“What we're hoping — and our fingers are crossed — is that over the coming months, we're going to see more kids be able to be protected from quarantine,” Jenkins said.

Anna Lynn Winfrey is a staff writer for the Montrose Daily Press.

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