When the Weld RE-4 school board, covering schools in Windsor and Severance, voted unanimously to remove the district’s mask mandate, the decision was welcomed with cheers and applause from parents who had been advocating for this decision since the mandate was introduced in September 2021.
But less than two weeks after masks officially became optional, one school — Windsor Middle School — has reached a positivity rate of more than 5% and one elementary classroom has had more than five cases, meaning masks are now required again in those settings.
Three more schools — Mountain View Elementary, Range View Elementary and Tozer Primary — are all within a percentage point of hitting the metric that will require a return to masking. For the majority of students and staff in the district, however, masks remain optional as COVID-19 rates remain low.
When asked if the district expected any schools to return to masks so quickly after the requirement was removed, district spokesperson Katie Messerli said they had no set expectations given the nature of the pandemic but were prepared for it to happen.
"You have to be flexible and nimble and respond the best that you can, given the scenario which you're dealt," she said. "But there's no way to predict the future ... we prepare to the best of our ability with the data that we have at hand."
She said they’re attributing the high percentages to the spread of the omicron variant; Colorado officials are saying that all cases across the state can now be attributed to the omicron variant.
When a school hits the threshold for masks to again be required in a building, Weld RE-4 notifies the school and then sends out an email to all impacted families informing them that the next day children and staff must be in masks, according to Chief Operating Officer Jayson Sebert, who is assisting in the district’s COVID-19 response.
The impacted school or classroom has to mask for five days, or until the positivity rate drops below 5%. If the rate doesn't drop after five days the masking timeline begins again, according to Messerli.
Sebert said the district will not make a protocol switch mid-school day and will always give at least one day’s notice for required masking. He added that since masking had been required again in one elementary classroom and one middle school, there had been no district-level pushback from parents or school members about the requirement.
Omicron is spreading rapidly in Weld County, like in the rest of the state, so it is not a surprise that school positivity rates have increased over two weeks. Weld’s positivity rate is higher than 30%, and the positivity rate within the Weld RE-4 boundaries is approaching 29% as of Jan. 17, the last time the number was updated on the district's COVID-19 page.
Within the county, 22% of all cases since the pandemic began have been in people 0-19, but the same age group accounts for just 4% of hospitalizations and has not reported any deaths. However, Weld County's COVID-19 dashboard states that not all death data is shown by age grouping due to low numbers in the 0-19 category. The county lists 559 resident deaths due to COVID-19, and other age groups account for 558.
But aside from hospitalizations and deaths, COVID-19 is causing other issues for the school-aged population, primarily threatening a shift back to remote learning.
On Jan. 14 district leadership sent a message to families informing them of possible remote learning situations that may arise.
“The Weld RE-4 School District is experiencing a substitute pool shortage,” read the announcement. “This, combined with COVID-19, may lead to a staffing shortage. While in-person learning is our top priority, we want to be prepared in the event that a school or portion of a school cannot operate due to a staffing shortage.”
In fall 2019, the district needed about 465 substitutes ranging from teachers to paraprofessionals to nutrition workers; this fall, Messerli said that number increased to 870.
She said they’re being hit with a “double whammy” in terms of COVID-19 and the substitute shortage, but added that while a shift to remote is an option, the district’s top priority is to keep students in the classroom.
"We're facing a national shortage anyway, and so this adds another layer of complexity," Messerli said of COVID-19 and the existing substitute shortage. "While in-person learning is our first priority, we do have contingency plans in place, and those have been communicated to our families in the event that we may need to send a school or a portion of one to remote learning."
Windsor and Severance schools are not alone in facing this issue.
On Jan. 10, Poudre School District sent a similar message informing families that schools, classrooms or programs may temporarily shift to remote as the district copes with staffing shortages and increased absences.
To apply to be a substitute in Windsor and Severance schools, visit weldre4.org/announcements/apply_to_be_a_substitute_today and for information on open positions in PSD, visit psdschools.org/careers.
Molly Bohannon covers education for the Coloradoan. Follow her on Twitter @molboha or contact her at email@example.com. Support her work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.
This article originally appeared on Fort Collins Coloradoan: Some Windsor, Severance students back in masks with high COVID rates