Instances of infection are higher now than they were at this time last year. Graph courtesy of Garfield County Public Health

When Ross Montessori School (RMS) closed on Nov. 15 due to a coronavirus outbreak among staff and students, the school tallied 56 infections since Oct. 11, with 12 active cases. In the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) weekly Outbreak Report, the RMS count stood at 61. Even at the lower number, the RMS outbreak was the third largest COVID-19 casecount in the state recorded at a school site last week. 

A letter from the Ross Montessori board of directors to parents and the community said that their school would reopen on Nov. 29, to give “students and staff time to physically recover, obtain COVID-19 vaccination (if they so choose), and be ready to return to in-person learning.” 

For public health reasons, the school “will continue to be designated as an outbreak facility” until it has gone 28 days with no additional positive COVID test results.

Ten miles away, at Cornerstone Christian School in Eagle County, there have been no in-person classes since Nov. 4, by which time COVID had claimed the life of one school staff member, and 14 people had been infected in a student body of about 100. “Cornerstone made the decision to go to a remote modality the day the Board of Health issued an emergency public health order,” says Heath Harmon, head of Eagle County’s Public Health and Environment Department.

Heading into another holiday season and the third winter of the pandemic, educators are bearing more of the brunt of the global pandemic, as they strive to keep their classrooms open. Schools with students in grades K-12 make up close to half of the 725 active coronavirus sites that CDPHE investigated last week.  

Although their mortality rate remains statistically very low, schools rank alongside assisted living facilities, prisons and detention centers as the riskiest locations for COVID’s spread.When school outbreaks grow too large, it’s up to administrators to determine when to shut down in-person classes and when to reopen them. “The key limiting factor is how many teachers and staff are out sick,” says Harmon. “If the school reaches a certain threshold of these people being out, they are not able to operate.”

Most important, there is that word “outbreak” to define, and to know what to do about it when it occurs. In school settings, public health officials in Garfield County use five associated cases as the criterion for designating an outbreak. Identifying outbreaks of five or more cases does not mean an entire school must close; school and classroom closures are determined on a case-by-case basis as there is no longer a numerical matrix to decide if a school or class should close.

As difficult as it still is to contain this novel virus, school leaders find that dealing with parental opposition to one decision they make or another is equally challenging. Sara Brainard, Garfield County’s public health nurse manager, describes “the severe number of concerned parents who left anonymous messages” regarding RMS.

“County public health departments are not going to shut schools,” says Brainard. “We are not as heavy-handed as some people think we should be.” 

Some parents had asked the school to host a vaccination clinic on the campus of the charter school, which has an enrollment of 309 from kindergarten through eighth grade. Brainard says that having a vaccination clinic at the school had also been Garfield County Public Health’s recommendation.

“We have ZERO interest in this or any other immunization program,” Head of School Sonya Hemmen had written in a letter sent to parents before the school closed. “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.” 

In her letter Hemmen also said, “a high number of adults and some children are vaccinated.” Subsequently, a Ross Montessori COVID Response Team spokesperson said 94% of the staff has now been vaccinated. Area public schools do not require vaccination against COVID, but serial testing for those who are unvaccinated is recommended.

While neither Pitkin or Eagle County public health officials will order a school to close, both counties do use much stronger methods of persuasion than Garfield County to bring a school into compliance with their health orders. 

Cornerstone’s Pastor Tarr faces a $5,000 fine and 18 months of jail time for his school’s refusal to require that masks be worn by everyone, and for not promptly reporting Cornerstone’s outbreak which, at last CDPH count, was 17 cases. 

It will be up to Cornerstone to decide when to reopen, says Harmon, as long as county health orders are followed. 

These include submitting positive case reports as soon as possible, requiring masks for everyone over the age of two, twice-weekly COVID testing for unvaccinated staff and teachers, and not hosting any public events before Dec. 17.

Despite the conflicts, all school administrators interviewed say they work closely with their county public health officials. Weekly zoom meetings with area superintendents during which new data and recommendations are shared, have become standard operating procedure. 

Increased emphasis is being put on getting kids between the ages of five and 12 vaccinated at one of the mobile clinics that will be hosted by various schools in December.

“We are relying very heavily on Pitkin County Health to keep our schools safe and open,” says Carolyn Hines, director of communications for Aspen Country Day School.

Vaccination and testing will remain the best defense against COVID’s spread this winter, says Dr. Dr. Brooke Allen, a Basalt neurologist who partners with Garfield, Eagle and Pitkin Counties’ public health departments to provide the’s 11 pop-up test sites that are free to everybody. 

“We’re definitely in worse shape this year than last,” she says. “Personally, if I go anywhere and I don’t know the vaccination status of everyone in the room, I wear a mask. But you can still live your life.”

Editor’s Note: Reporter Dyana Furmansky is related to one student at RMS.