A week before the Thanksgiving holiday, the Ross Montessori School in Carbondale closed its doors early.
The largest reported COVID-19 outbreak in Garfield County since the start of the pandemic resulted in K-8 charter school transitioning to distance learning for a week starting Monday.
According to data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, 46 students — nearly 15% of enrollment — and 10 staff members have tested positive for COVID since Oct. 11. According to the November 11 data, the cumulative 56 cases are the highest number. reported outbreak in Garfield County, on top of 55 from the E. Dene Moore Care Center in Rifle in November 2020.
A letter the school sent to parents revealed 20 positive tests from students and six from staff in the past two weeks. On November 16, according to the school, 10 students and a staff member were still in quarantine.
The plan is to resume classes in person on November 29, after the Thanksgiving break.
“I know the school will do everything operationally to be personal,” said Ross Montessori chairman Paul Smith. “We hope, like everyone else, that the delta variant wave passes and that our families who decide they want to get vaccinations for their children ages 5 to 11 have the opportunity to do so with this two-week break.”
Not a single high school student tested positive as of the Nov. 11 letter, but 10 of the 11 elementary-level classes had at least one positive student test.
The school did not mandate vaccinations for students or staff, but implemented mask requirements, cohort isolation and ventilation measures. It declined to offer specific vaccination rates, but said they were “high” in the letter to parents.
“Since our state does not require the COVID vaccination for children, we only know if parents inform us,” said Ross Montessori, principal of the school, Sonya Hemmen. “They are under no obligation to tell us.”
In its November 11 letter, it rejected the idea of organizing a vaccination clinic at the school. Two parents had requested an on-site vaccination clinic, which, according to the letter, goes against school philosophy.
“We have no interest in this or any other vaccination program,” reads the letter, signed by Hemmen and the board of directors. “We want to assure you that it is not consistent with our role as a school or as a health facility to poke students with needles.”
Ross Montessori is one of three local schools with an active outbreak, as described by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment in its most recent report.
Grand Valley High School in Parachute reported 18 cases cumulatively — 17 of them students — after first reporting Oct. 19. According to Garfield County Public Health, the outbreak in Grand Valley was considered resolved Monday. It was the second-largest school outbreak in the county after Ross Montessori’s.
Active outbreaks are marked as resolved by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment after 28 days with no new cases.
On Nov. 10, the Cornerstone Christian School in Basalt reportedly had 17 cumulative cases, including the death of a longtime staff member. The school is facing an Eagle County public health order that determines how students and staff with positive tests qualify for return to school.
Not facing public health regulations, Ross Montessori has voluntarily chosen to close its doors temporarily, working closely with Garfield County Public Health when a staff member tested positive in late September, school officials said.
The school reportedly had enough healthy staff members to remain open, but followed requests from staff to go online “for extra time to recover from illness,” the letter said. It took a similar action the week before the winter break last year due to COVID cases, Smith said.
The school has not set any standards for returning to school in person and plans to resume classes normally after recess.
“In a Montessori school, we simply cannot replicate what happens at home in a classroom,” said Ross Montessori education coach Mandi Franz. “What we have in our classroom and what our teachers do regularly and the communication that happens between students and the collaboration, that’s just best done in person.”
Garfield County Public Health wanted to emphasize that travel over the Thanksgiving holiday could exacerbate a worsening trend in COVID-19 cases.
“Compared to this time a year ago, when vaccines just became a tool to reduce cases, we’re almost back to that level with cases,” said Carrie Godes, spokeswoman for Garfield County Public Health. “It’s an important time to remind families that come together, parents who work, that this affects your household. It affects your school, your workplace and your family.”