COVID-19 outbreaks in schools are 4 times higher than a year ago


DENVER (KDVR) — Outbreak data is incomplete, but one of last year’s trends leading into the school year seems to be not just repeating itself but intensifying: the number of outbreaks in child care centers and K-12 schools.

A COVID outbreak at STEM School Highlands Ranch has led the school’s administration to move to limited remote learning. Colleges and universities say they are prepared to move into remote or hybrid learning schedules if last year’s school year case spike happens again.

Data is mixed on whether this is likely, but some trends look troubling.

Case rates themselves, for instance, are now higher than they were the same time last year.

This would trend with the broad differences in public policy. Last year, there were no vaccines, the state still had widespread social distancing and capacity restrictions in place and businesses had not broadly opened back up to on location working.

We showed the data to the Colorado Education Association. President Amie Baca-Oehlert said she’s not surprised.

“This year, the majority of districts — in fact I think all districts — are starting the year with in-person learning,” she said. “We have varied consistency around what safety-mitigation strategies are in place.”

Perhaps the biggest inconsistency is with mask mandates, with some districts requiring them for certain age groups and others not requiring them at all.

“We know that mask wearing is one of the least invasive, yet most beneficial strategies that can be implemented to keep us in in-person learning,” Baca-Oehlert said. “We’ve got to keep doing those things we know work so that we can provide the best learning environments for our students.”

Through the summer of 2021, cases generally tracked similar to last year. Since the national rise in delta variant cases began in the summer, however, they’ve shot past last year’s trendline starting late July.

As of Aug. 23, there are 1,500 daily new cases in Colorado. Last year in the same time, there were only 300 cases per day – just one-fifth of this year’s caseload.

Outbreak totals look like last year’s in some areas, as well.

The state has defined outbreaks differently starting June 1. Before then, an outbreak consisted of any two cases traced to the same location within a two-week window. This year, an outbreak is five or more.

With the new definition, there have been fewer outbreaks this summer even though case rates quintupled. August outbreak totals aren’t completely tallied yet, but at this rate every month of 2021’s summer was shaping up with fewer outbreaks than the same month in 2020.

In August, this trend broke. With another week left to go in the month, August 2021 has already matched the outbreak total from last year.

Where those outbreaks are happening, however, looks like the lead-in to last year’s schoolyear spike.

In late summer and early fall of last year, child care centers, k-12 schools and colleges and universities quickly grew to the largest outbreak sources outside of healthcare facilities.

The same trend is happening this year, and at an accelerated pace.

Even with a higher standard to meet for outbreaks, each month in the summer of 2021 has had more outbreaks at child care centers than the same month last year, with time to spare for August.

Similarly, k-12 school outbreaks have risen this year.

In August 2020, there were only three k-12 school outbreaks. With the higher threshold definition this year, there have been 14.

Colorado’s colleges and universities’ respective vaccination mandates may be having an impact. There has only been one outbreak traced to a university in the 2021-22 academic year so far instead of last year’s four.

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