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Virus Outbreaks Lead to Closure of Two Colorado School Districts

Two school districts in Colorado, including one with more than 40 schools, shut down for two normal operating days over the past week amid widespread virus outbreaks. 

All 46 schools in the Mesa County Valley School District closed last Thursday and Friday after students and staff at more than a dozen schools experienced norovirus-like symptoms, including vomiting in public areas. Thanksgiving break in the district was scheduled for this entire week.

The issues in Mesa County originated earlier this month at Palisade High School. The school closed mid-day on Thursday, Nov. 14, and for all of the following day after roughly 30 percent of students reported gastrointestinal illness. The following week, several other schools in the district closed, eventually prompting the school district to shut down entirely.

Approximately 4,000 students out of the district's 22,000 were affected by the outbreak on Nov. 20, according to district spokesperson Emily Shockley. District leaders decided to close all 46 schools once it became clear that the outbreak had reached widespread areas of the district.

"Closure [for individual schools] typically happens when student and/or staff absences are at, approaching, or above 20 percent due to illness," a Nov. 20 notice from the district reads. A separate notice from that day said the school district had never entirely closed previously due to illness. 

Outbreaks in schools have closed districts in more than a dozen states in recent years, though each district has its own benchmarks for the severity that justifies closure.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers guidelines for increasing awareness of preventative measures but no specific recommendations for how schools should act in response to outbreaks. Local public health departments typically advise frequent hand-washing and other precautionary measures to mitigate risk of catching diseases or spreading them to others.

West Grand School District, comprised of two schools, announced last Thursday that it would be closed on Monday and Tuesday this week, after a previously scheduled Friday off. 

Two illnesses—one gastrointestinal, one upper respiratory—began affecting students and staff a couple weeks ago, according to West Grand School District Superintendent Darrin Peppard. At the height of the outbreak last week, more than 60 students and 15 staffers had reported one of the two illnesses, out of 440 total students and 80 district employees.

Peppard, who's been with the district for nearly three years, said in his 25-year education career he's never had to close schools due to illness. He had the upper-respiratory infection a couple weeks ago, at the onset of the outbreak, he said.

Discussions for addressing the outbreak began on Thursday and involved conversations with officials in public health and emergency management, the district leadership team, and the school board, according to Peppard.

"With as many students and adults that we were going to be experiencing out at that time, was the educational product going to be of quality, or were we just simply marking time?" he said.

Closing for two days allowed time for sanitation staff to thoroughly scour the buildings, and for students and staff to get proper rest over the Thanksgiving holiday. Though closure isn't ideal, Peppard said he sees it as a long-term investment.

"When we return from break, we're much better rested, we're healthier from the student side and the staff side," he said. "That stretch of instruction between Thanksgiving break and winter break is of higher quality. That then translates into higher quality instruction as we go into second semester."

The state's education department hasn't yet decided whether the West Grand district will have to make up the lost days, Peppard said.

The cause of outbreaks is generally difficult to determine, and concurrent outbreaks aren't always connected. Other schools in the nation have been hit with virus outbreaks in recent weeks, including Arlington Public Schools in Nebraska (closed last Friday) and Periwinkle Elementary School in Albany, Ore. (closed Monday).

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