Before students and teachers can safely head back to Colorado’s classrooms amid a pandemic that is beginning its sixth month, school and health officials say they need a detailed map of where the virus is and how it’s behaving on any given day.
Only frequent and reliable testing can provide that level of insight into a disease that has already dramatically upended the way schools operate in Colorado, with many delaying in-person instruction this fall as the state’s coronavirus caseload eclipses the 50,000 mark.
But offering affordable and comprehensive testing and tracing is no easy feat for the state’s 178 school districts, which serve more than 900,000 students. That conundrum, just days before the new academic year is to begin, prompted Denver-based philanthropic foundation Gary Community Investments to commit $1 million toward providing low-cost COVID-19 tests for teachers and staff with results available in 72 hours or less.
Testing began Friday, with teachers eventually able to choose from nine dedicated drive-thru COVIDCheck Colorado program sites in the metro area.
“This is the playbook the most successful countries have used,” said Mike Johnston, the former Democratic gubernatorial candidate who serves as Gary’s CEO. “Any public-facing staff — teachers, cafeteria workers, security guards — we are recommending be tested.”
The tests will be free to the employee, with districts charged $10 for each one administered. That’s a steep discount from what a typical coronavirus test costs on the private market, Johnston said. Full-time and part-time teachers and staff who work on school campuses will be able to get a test roughly every two weeks under the COVIDCheck system.
Last week, Gary Community Investments signed up the state’s largest school district — 94,000-student Denver Public Schools. It also has partnerships with other large districts in the metro area, including Aurora Public Schools, Cherry Creek Public Schools, Sheridan School District 2, Westminster Public Schools, Mapleton Public Schools and 27J Schools in Brighton.
Discussions are underway to add more districts to the program.
“I think (testing) should be mandatory,” said Beth Douma, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Lake Middle School and a 25-year veteran of Denver Public Schools. “I have asthma — I want to make sure I take care of myself and others.”
Without a centralized federal testing program for COVID-19 in place, Douma said, school districts need to be proactive in tracking the virus and so it can be tamped down as quickly as possible. The state education department doesn’t mandate coronavirus testing — that is up to the local public health agency in which the school district is located, an agency spokesman told The Denver Post.
Denver Public Schools recently announced it wouldn’t start in-person learning until mid-October at the earliest.
COVIDCheck Colorado bills itself as a one-stop shop for COVID-19 detection, providing users with an app-based dashboard that displays the district’s test results and symptom data to help stop potential outbreaks before they start. The process begins with a polymerise chain reaction, or PCR, test. That’s the one where they don’t jam the swab “into your brain,” Johnston said.
“It’s a lot more comfortable and incredibly accurate,” he said. “You’re in and out in three minutes.”
Individuals testing positive will receive an alert and advice for next steps from a local telehealth provider. The system allows school staff and students to report symptoms at the start of the school day and get recommendations from COVIDCheck as to whether to stay home or get tested. That data is reported anonymously so the district can see what symptoms have been reported and in what school, but without names attached.
Denver Public Schools plans to spend between $50,000 and $70,000 a month for COVIDCheck’s services, possibly using federal relief money, said DPS spokeswoman Winna Maclaren. The agreement with Gary Community Investments will last through December, with an option to go the full school year.
“We hope this will give staff and families some peace of mind as we work to resume in-person learning later in the school year,” Maclaren said.
She said DPS wanted to have access to the system’s real-time data capabilities to quickly identify potential outbreaks before they flare. The COVID-19 testing site at the Pepsi Center, which is free to anyone who wants a test, can run out of kits and take longer to turn results around, she said.
Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, said testing is a “crucial” part of getting school buildings ready for reopening. But she worries about the bill districts will have to foot with COVIDCheck, even if those tests come at a steep discount.
“It is an absolutely important component of getting to in-person learning, but it shows the level of financial expense that districts are having to face when getting teachers and students back to in-person learning safely,” she said. “The concern over time is whether they will be able to sustain it.”
While the focus from Gary Community Investments so far has been on big, urban school districts, testing for teachers would be welcome in Colorado’s smaller school districts as well, said Kevin LaDuke, a sixth-grade social studies and science teacher at Orchard Mesa Middle School in Grand Junction.
“As an educator, I hope we would have that option so we can do the tracing so we can keep our teachers and students safe,” he said.
The 22,000-student Mesa County Valley School District 51 is planning to launch its school year with both in-person and remote learning on Monday, which LaDuke says is made easier by the fact that coronavirus caseloads on the West Slope have been less severe than those on the Front Range.
In fact, Mesa County, with fewer than 200 cases per 100,000 population, ranks toward the bottom of Colorado’s county case rate and has had just four COVID-19 deaths since March, compared with more than 400 in Denver.
Dr. Bill Burman, director of Denver Public Health, said his organization consulted with Gary Community Investments on the testing protocol and plan it wants to use. He said a slight decrease in the coronavirus positivity rate over the last couple of weeks in Colorado is a hopeful development as schools ramp up their reopenings.
“We’re at a rate where testing can be a very helpful tool to bring the cases down,” he said. “Early identification of cases allows us to properly isolate these cases. That’s a key way we can break the transmission of COVID.”
But that involves resolve by more than just teachers and school officials. Burman said the caseload in the community in which a school district resides is important because he worries about “schools being victims of community transmission — not the cause of community transmission.”
“It’s on all of us to drive down the case rate,” he said.
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