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Aurora will offer its 4,000 teachers two coronavirus tests a month come fall. Will other school districts follow?

A tool developed with help from Harvard and MIT epidemiologists aims to help Aurora Public Schools staff better access coronavirus tests and track symptoms and cases

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Gary Community Investment Company and The Piton Foundation on Tuesday said they will invest up to $1 million in testing every Aurora Public Schools teacher for COVID-19 every two weeks during the school year, the foundation of a sophisticated new tracking system that could dramatically improve the district’s ability to monitor the potential of a coronavirus outbreak. 

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It’s a cutting-edge plan in the middle of the chaos of figuring out how to best educate kids while keeping everyone safe. 

COVIDCheck Colorado is a social-benefit enterprise of the foundations, known collectively as Gary Community Investments, intended to provide schools and workplaces across the state a platform that employees can voluntarily use to record and store their personal experiences with coronavirus symptoms and possible exposures.

Aurora Public Schools is the first partner of the tool that stitches together the critical elements of responding to the pandemic, including affordable access to testing and fast results, a simple approach to tracking symptoms and a focus on contact tracing.  

Other K-12 school districts as well as at-risk environments, such as home health care, elder care facilities, fire departments and food manufacturers, are also potential users for the tool,  said Mike Johnston, Gary Community Investments’ president and CEO.

He has prioritized serving schools with the technology because they’re foundational in supporting low-income children and their families, which also is a central mission of Gary Community. Low-income kids are more likely to fall behind in remote learning settings, and many parents can’t return to work if their child isn’t in school or child care, Johnston said.

“We knew that with the current economic recession, those families were going to be hurt the hardest if we didn’t enable organizations to open safely and remain open,” Johnston said.

But “making sure that our teachers and our students are entirely safe and protected if we’re going to return to school settings,” is a crucial part of that equation, he said.

Read more education stories from The Colorado Sun.

Gary Community is already negotiating with other metro-area school districts, and with colleges and other employers in the state, he said.

Tracking exposures through Bluetooth 

COVIDCheck Colorado was developed with help from epidemiologists at the Eli and Edythe L. Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. 

Johnston said the tool could become a model for the rest of the country, so long as Colorado implements it well.

Through COVIDCheck Colorado, staff members of a participating school or workplace can tap into a platform where they can sign up for a regularly scheduled appointment to get tested for the virus at a clinic and time convenient for them. Results of the tests, which cost $10, will be returned within 48 hours.

A telehealth provider will call each person who tests positive for COVID-19 to walk them through necessary steps for self-isolation. All positive cases will also be reported to local public health agencies and to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, in accordance with the law.

The technology also includes a HIPAA-compliant mobile app, through which users can voluntarily track and report any symptoms they’re experiencing and, for those who test positive, input the contact information for any people with whom they have interacted. A dashboard will compile test results and symptoms among individuals within an organization so that employers can get a broader picture on the health of their workforce and get ahead of any outbreaks.

Johnston said this approach will be more effective than random testing among individuals as it creates a system of testing, tracking and contact tracing within designated communities.

Among the most advanced components of COVIDCheck Colorado is an exposure tracking feature that uses Bluetooth technology to alert any smartphone the user has come within 6 feet of, so long as the users have opted in to the function.

Aurora Public Schools, which has about 40,000 students and is Colorado’s fifth largest public school, is taking advantage of COVIDCheck Colorado to test any of its staff members who interact with the public and children — including bus drivers, nutrition services employees and 4,000 teachers — twice a month. All other staff, such as people working in the district office, will have the opportunity to be tested once a month, said Superintendent Rico Munn. The district employs about 6,000 people.

“Aurora Public Schools serves a very high need population of students and they have courageous leadership who wanted to find a way to get this done, and we are excited to partner with them to help make the reopening of schools safe,” Johnston said.

Diane Scanzaroli, a physician assistant at Ardas Family Medicine in Aurora, in the parking lot of the clinic on April 15, 2020 after testing a patient for the new coronavirus. (Moe Clark, The Colorado Sun)

The district is currently planning to pursue in-person classes through a cohort model in which clusters of students will stay together throughout the school day, Munn said. In elementary and middle schools, students would attend classes all day while high school students would attend classes half the day, with two different groups of students in classes during the day. 

Other health and safety steps include mandatory masks for all Aurora Public Schools students and staff, protocols around how desks are positioned and how people move throughout school buildings, Munn said. 

The district does not currently have any plans to take students’ temperatures at school, relying on parents and caregivers to check their children for symptoms and take their temperatures every morning. School staff including nurses, however, will watch for any potential symptoms among students that could be a cause for concern.

To give schools more time to implement precautions and train staff on health and safety guidelines, Aurora Public Schools pushed its start date back by a week. Children in grades 1-12 will now start on Aug. 18 while those in preschool and kindergarten will start on Aug. 24.

If public health advice changes, Munn said, the district will modify its plans.

Aurora Public Schools will use the data it gathers through COVIDCheck Colorado to create maps to help track cases at any of its 60 schools. Staff members will also be able to use the app to complete daily symptom check-ins, which will arm the district with the information it needs to be able to contact trace in partnership with the Tri-County Health Department, Munn said.

Munn said he believes that countries and systems that have gotten a handle on the coronavirus have been successful through rigorous testing and a commitment to wearing face coverings in public.

“Clearly testing is one of the best mechanisms to reduce infection and spread,” Munn said, “and so we are excited that we have the opportunity to be at the forefront of that in the state.”

Rising Sun