The Boulder Valley School District building in Boulder on Nov. 17, 2021. Credit: Anthony Albidrez

Boulder Valley School District held its first board meeting of 2022 on Jan. 11 as the community continues to assess losses and chart its recovery from the Marshall Fire. The board discussed how the wildfire has affected students and staff alike, and shared details on the district’s response to the crisis. 

Covid-19 was also a major topic. Public health officials presented record-breaking case numbers in Boulder County due to the Omicron surge, but the district says it remains committed to in-person learning.

Here are a few key takeaways from Tuesday’s meeting.

Marshall Fire response

“It is miraculous that all our buildings were untouched by the fire,” said Randy Barber, the district’s head of communications. However, he said 506 students and 41 staff members lost their homes. 

An additional 2,356 students and 192 staff members live within the burn boundary. Many more were affected by the fire in other ways: evacuation orders, utility outages, questionable air quality, and more.

Principal Neil Anderson from Monarch High School said he was thankful for how first responders and the district have handled the fire. He praised the trauma team at his school, which has been responding to students’ mental and emotional needs in the wake of the disaster. 

Anderson also said he was glad Boulder Valley schools opened as scheduled. “Our schools are our community centers,” he said.

Barber detailed some of the measures taken to ensure that schools could open after the fire. Due to a boil water notice effective in some parts of the district when schools reopened last Wednesday, the district distributed 3,200 gallons of potable water, 160 handwashing stations and 31 pallets of drinking water to schools. The district also deployed 130 air scrubbers to improve air quality following smoke exposure.

In response to many questions from the community about air quality after the Marshall Fire, Boulder County Public Health (BCPH) officials said they have reached out to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), who will be sending out a crew to perform gaseous monitoring around the burn area. 

If the air quality analysis shows the air is unsafe, BCPH said community members in affected areas will be alerted right away.

Omicron breaks records

Public health officials from Boulder County and Broomfield presented on the rapid increase in Covid cases in recent weeks due to the Omicron variant. 

Dr. Michelle Haas, Boulder County Public Health’s chief medical officer, summarized new research on Omicron’s increased transmissibility. Median time from exposure to infection may be three days, which is shorter than for Delta, and vulnerability to Covid reinfection is five times higher than Delta.

 Dr. Haas emphasized how quickly an infected person can spread Omicron. “Substantial transmission occurs before symptoms and diagnosis and on the first day of illness,” she said. “Highest risk is within households and exposure prior to diagnosis and symptoms.” 

Haas did share one encouraging note on Omicron: Risk of hospitalization appears to be 25% lower than with Delta (in people with no previous immunity).

Helene Lanzer from the Broomfield Department of Public Health and Environment said daily new cases and positivity rates are at all-time highs statewide. She said most hospitalizations are among people 70 and older, but the department is keeping an eye on an increase in childhood hospitalizations. 

Lanzer also said cases among residents ages 0–4 are increasing, which is concerning since that age group is not yet eligible for vaccination.

BVSD prioritizes in-person learning

Stephanie Faren, director of health services for BVSD, presented on how the district is dealing with this unprecedented case surge due to the Omicron variant. She said the district’s main priority is protecting public health while “keeping students in school five days a week.” 

Following CDC guidelines, students who test positive for Covid can return to school after quarantining for five days, if their symptoms are resolving. (Faren defined this as having no fever for 24 hours, without using medicine.) Testing with an antigen test on the last day of quarantine is encouraged, but not required.

A steadfast commitment to sticking with in-person learning was the recurring theme from board members and public health officials alike. 

A district parent concerned about her kids’ health was the only person to suggest a temporary return to remote learning during the meeting. Speaking during public comment, she recognized the difficulty of remote learning but said she believed it would be best for every child’s health.

“In-person learning is an essential function, just like food production or law enforcement,” said Sandra Sonoda, an occupational nurse on the county’s education epidemiology team. “It must go on.”

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