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Montezuma-Cortez schools report spike in COVID-19 cases

Montezuma-Cortez High School Principal Eric Chandler sent out a letter Wednesday informing the community that an individual at the school had tested positive for COVID-19.
District also reports students are infecting students

The Montezuma-Cortez School District RE-1 issued a letter shortly after 4 p.m. stating that as of Wednesday, the district had seen the highest number of COVID-19 cases so far this school year.

The district also reported that for the first time that students were infecting other students.

The district posted the letter on its Facebook page, where it also reported multiple incidents of vandalism in school restrooms “which could get in the way of providing hand washing opportunities for others.”

Montezuma-Cortez High School Principal Eric Chandler also sent a letter Wednesday informing the community that an individual at the school had tested positive for the virus.

Since the beginning of the school year, there have been 30 total cases of COVID-19 in the district, said Assistant Superintendent Lis Richard on Tuesday during the monthly board meeting.

As of Tuesday night, five students and three staff were virus-positive. No staff had tested positive in the past two weeks of school until Tuesday evening, she said.

Seventy-four students are quarantined, Richard added.

The total number of cases Wednesday was not available.

One classroom at Montezuma-Cortez Middle School had five positive cases between weeks four and five, and one Kemper Elementary School class was quarantined after a student’s middle school sibling tested positive, she said.

A letter Thursday from the middle school said the Montezuma County Health Department identified an outbreak in one of the sixth grade classrooms, and that there were nine positive cases — five in the past two days. The students have been quarantined since Friday, it said.

“What we’ve seen in week four and five is our students transmitting it amongst one another, and we hadn’t seen that really before,” Richard said.

She mentioned that a district charter school closed in-person classes because of the virus. Southwest Open School announced Sept. 15 that it was moving fully online until Friday, Sept. 27, because staff were exposed to the virus at a staff training meeting Sept. 10, a letter posted on the school’s Facebook page said. Staff would be quarantined for 10 days.

The school board discussed making potential changes to its Citizen’s Guide to Reopening. Some expressed concern that students were being quarantined who didn’t end up testing positive for the coronavirus.

The board ultimately voted to keep the guide as is – continuing to follow state and CDC guidelines — instead of adding stronger language that would more strictly enforce quarantines for close contacts.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and CDC use terms like “recommend” or “should” in school quarantines guidelines, Richard said, which has led to parent confusion at the school level.

Those with symptoms must stay home regardless, Superintendent Risha VanderWey said.

Only board members Stacey Hall and Sherri Wright voted to add more definite language to the guide, after district staff said vague quarantine language made it harder to streamline school responses to the virus.

“If we say we’ll quarantine then we’re going to, if we leave it and say that it’s optional we might as well not quarantine at all,” said Montezuma-Cortez Middle School Principal Drew Pearson.

Board member Sheri Noyes said she wanted to keep children in school.

“It’s kind of alarming that we had taken away many days of education for these students that were — for the most part — healthy and could’ve gone to school,” she said.

Board member Tammy Hooten agreed, saying she thought too many children were in quarantine, and that the additional weight of teaching online to quarantined students was a burden to teachers.

She considers the virus to be “a real deal,” she added, saying that members of her own family have struggled with it.

“How long do we plan to do this? The rest of our children’s educational career from here on out? This is something that’s apparently not going away. Do we want to have teachers stressed and tired and worn out just dealing with this for the rest of their careers?” Noyes asked. “We did our due diligence in the beginning last year, and we’re no further ahead, really.”

“Right now, I’m saying we give them every freedom they have until the government decides to put their foot back down again and take them all away from us,” she said.

VanderWey recommended that the district err on the side of caution regarding the virus, and board member Jack Schuenemeyer agreed.

“The governor is not stating that we’re in an emergency. The country is not stating that we’re in an emergency. And public health is not stating an emergency, but I can tell you that I have a lot of staff that are afraid and are scared, and they’re with these kids every day,” VanderWey said.

She doesn’t want to see schools “emptied out” because of staff sickness, she said.

“I am on the conservative side for the 2,800 kids that we serve, the 400 staff that we serve, and the community of Cortez. And it might sound dramatic, but a lot of my kids, my staff and our families — we touch everybody.”

Hall expressed concern that some students in quarantine would be home alone without someone to support their learning.

“The reality of it is, at some point we have to let parents be parents,” Wright said.

Wright said one parent approached her, saying that of their two middle school children, who shared a bedroom at home, one was quarantined and the other was not.

The district is waiting on tests from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment as part of the state’s free, voluntary weekly antigen rapid testing program for schools. Some board members were concerned about the possibility of false positives with the tests. Richard said students must confirm their positive diagnoses with a hospital test.