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A Colorado school is taking coronavirus testing beyond its students and teachers

Clayton Early Learning’s entire school community — students, their families and teachers — can access high-quality testing on campus for free. It’s a unique approach to combating the virus that could serve as a national model.

Clayton Early Learning staff complete health checks for students. COVID-19 testing at the campus is available every other week for students, their families and teachers. (Scott Dressel Martin, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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A COVID-19 testing network that is already testing about 40,000 teachers across Colorado school districts and higher education institutions has expanded to test some of Denver’s youngest learners and their families, who are among the most vulnerable.

COVIDCheck Colorado, a network developed by Gary Community Investment Company and The Piton Foundation, is partnering with Clayton Early Learning to provide free tests to more than 300 children along with their families — all of whom are low income — and their teachers. It’s the first time the network is offering regular and long-term testing to preschool-aged children, their family members and their teachers. 

GCI president and CEO Mike Johnston describes a “wraparound testing option” that will be available to a population that lacks consistent access to quality services. Those families now have more access to high-quality testing than anyone else in the state, except perhaps the Denver Nuggets, Johnston said.

Testing right on the Denver campus is “a game changer” for Clayton Early Learning, President and CEO Becky Crowe said.

“If our families needed to go to a different testing site, it would just reduce the convenience and the ability to get tested,” Crowe said.

A Clayton Early Learning student gets her temperature taken with hand sanitizer nearby for members of the school community to use. (Scott Dressel Martin, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Clayton Early Learning’s testing site is the only one of its kind in Colorado and the only one Johnston is aware of in the nation with a coronavirus testing approach that supports an entire school community. Colorado’s U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet holds the model up as one full of lessons for the rest of the country and sees a chance to replicate parts of that approach elsewhere.

“I wish that we had a national approach to what they’re doing here in Colorado,” Bennet said in a phone interview on Thursday. “Perhaps we’ll be able to model some of the work that we do nationally on the work that we’re going to see at (Clayton Early Learning).”

The COVIDCheck Colorado is an example in action of a “Health Force” initiative Bennet proposed in April alongside New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. The pair introduced legislation aimed at expanding the country’s public health workforce largely to fight the pandemic by investing federal dollars in recruiting, training and hiring hundreds of thousands of people.

The legislation hasn’t advanced past introduction, though Bennet said he is still pursuing the concept and hopes it’s woven into the next federal COVID-19 stimulus package. There’s a lot of interest in building up the country’s health care workforce, he said, signaled by $75 billion already set aside in the federal Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act for priorities like COVID-19 testing and contact tracing. Workers employed through the “Health Force” would help facilitate those kinds of measures.

Bennet, who will join Johnston and education leaders at a media conference at Clayton Early Learning on Friday, said COVIDCheck Colorado has played a critical role in sending kids back to school and enabling parents to focus on work.

“It creates the opportunity for kids to be able to get the education that they need and for parents to be able to work, and that’s important,” Bennet said.

That hits at the heart of GCI’s mission in testing school communities throughout the state. The philanthropic organization’s efforts are rooted in a “two-generation approach to lifting families out of poverty,” Johnston said. While one of its priorities centers on ensuring kids can enroll in high-quality child care and preschool, it also works to connect parents with jobs that pay a middle-class wage — which Johnston said are “interdependent.” Without child care lined up, a parent can’t return to work, and often child care is needed for a parent to get a job in the first place.

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That’s why GCI helped piece together the Colorado Emergency Child Care Collaborative in the spring so essential workers could have a convenient and safe place to send their children while they stepped out onto the frontlines. The organization also piloted COVID-19 testing for children ages 5-10 at Aurora-based child care provider Rocky Mountain Kids over the summer with an intention to scale up testing in the fall, Johnston said. GCI knew there would be increased expectations for employees to return to work in person, which would amplify families’ need for child care. That need would face mounting pressure with some school districts remaining closed, leaving kids ages 5-10 without a guaranteed place to spend the day.

The organization — which has poured $1 million into the network and received support from the Gates Family Foundation — targeted school districts with COVID-19 testing first, he said, “because we think schools are the biggest economic and emotional backbone of their community.” He added that reopening schools is “essential to recovery.”

In testing about 40,000 teachers, COVIDCheck Colorado is protecting the health and safety of close to one million Coloradans, Johnston estimates. Those teachers educate about 350,000 students who are in contact with about 550,000 parents.

Within the past 30 days, the testing system has administered almost 35,000 tests, of which roughly half of 1% have been positive. Johnston cautiously regards that as a great sign.

The rate translates to one positive case in every building of 200 students, he said, and “that one positive is still enough to cause an outbreak if you don’t find it early and trace it aggressively.”

Aurora Public Schools was the first district to sign onto the testing network for its 4,000 teachers. Twenty Colorado districts, including Denver Public Schools, are also partnering with the testing network. Those districts educate close to half of the state’s public school student population, Johnston said. He noted that GCI has pushed to partner with high-density school districts where chances of exposure are higher and where significant populations of low-income students and students of color in particular might face more challenges with remote learning. Eight higher education institutions have also opted into the testing services.

The network has helped enable 150,000 Colorado students to return to in-person learning, which deeply impacts their academic development and social and emotional development, Johnston said. Teachers whose schools have not yet opened doors haven’t taken advantage of the testing at the rate GCI anticipated, but Johnston said he is hopeful that once schools are closer to resuming in-person classes, more teachers will be tested.

COVIDCheck Colorado has also expanded to employers and other facilities, including the Colorado Restaurant Association, the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, foster care facilities and residential treatment centers. Johnston hopes to keep growing testing to serve more employers along with more school districts and early childhood education centers.      

Ensuring “little munchkins” don’t put family members at risk

Child care providers and preschools are “the natural companion” to school districts, Johnston said, and at Clayton Early Learning — a longtime partner of the organization — they wanted to provide a strategy that was “more ambitious” by opening up testing to more than staff members.

COVIDCheck Colorado has tested some K-12 students showing symptoms of the coronavirus and some college students, but the Denver early childhood education center is the first place where regular testing will extend to an entire school community.

“We know how close those family units are,” Johnston said.

It’s a matter of keeping entire families safe. Because there are still unknowns about the transmission of the virus from young children to adults, Johnston said his organization doesn’t “want to take anything for granted,” particularly as kids are in close contact with older family members.

“We just want to put precautions in place to make sure these little munchkins aren’t putting anyone else in their family at risk,” he said.

Temperatures of Clayton Early Learning staff members are taken daily and the center collects health data to help ensure its classrooms can remain open safely. (Scott Dressel Martin, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Protecting early childhood educators is equally important, even without fully knowing how the virus travels among students, as “they’re the ones that enable all the rest of us to go back to work,” Johnston said.

Crowe, who leads Clayton Early Learning, said the center is consulting with medical professionals and tracking the research about coronavirus transmission among young children. There is still so much to learn about the spread of the disease, especially in early childhood settings, she noted. That’s why it’s so important for the center to pursue testing in partnership with GCI, she said.

Clayton Early Learning will have its own mobile testing site on campus where families can be tested for free every other Friday morning, either by appointment or by dropping in during testing hours.

GCI is also piloting other mobile testing sites beyond the eight drive-through sites it operates across the metro area.

The testing process is simple and speedy, requiring a person’s nostrils to both be swabbed with a q-tip with 10 swirls per nostril. Part of the q-tip is stored in a small plastic tube and shipped off to a lab. Most results are ready within 48 hours and are available through a link sent in a text message. COVIDCheck Colorado also includes technology in which a user can complete daily symptom checking and record every person they have had contact with for the last 20 days, which can expedite contact tracing in the event of a positive case.

Clayton Early Learning, which phased in its in-person learning and reached full capacity earlier this month, ran through one pilot round of testing in July to prepare for regular testing on its campus, Crowe said. The first official round of testing was conducted right before the center returned to serving all its students.

If everyone eligible for testing participates, Crowe said, COVIDCheck Colorado could be testing about 500 people every other week. Up to seven family members a student lives with can be tested. For students whose households include more, Clayton Early Learning and COVIDCheck Colorado would collaborate to figure out how to accommodate the student and family, said Chyrise Harris, vice president of communications for GCI.

The center will offer testing to both students who learn in its classrooms and those enrolled in home-based programs. Crowe cited the importance of testing in light of the prevalence of asymptomatic cases, noting that about 40% of positive cases lack symptoms.

To keep her facility open and keep her staff and students as safe and healthy as possible, “it’s really important that we identify positive (COVID-19) cases at the door essentially and enable our families and anyone who is infected with the virus to get the health supports that they need while ensuring the safety of the rest of our population,” Crowe said.

She added that the pandemic has followed the “predictable patterns” of the health disparities seen across the broader population, with Black and Latino individuals three times as likely to test positive or become infected with the virus. As Clayton Early Learning tackles other systemic inequities, it’s important that its kids, families and staff can access free and frequent testing, she said.

A Clayton Early Learning staff member holds out a thermometer. Temperatures of staff, students and parents are taken every day. (Scott Dressel Martin, Special to The Colorado Sun)

One particularly critical element of COVIDCheck Colorado’s testing process is its rapid turnaround time, Crowe said, with results coming back no later than 72 hours after testing. That fast pace will make contact tracing more reliable and will help the center respond to a positive case and get ahead of transmission.

Susana Cordova, superintendent of Denver Public Schools, received her test results in less than 48 hours both times she was tested through the network.

“I think it gives us the peace of mind to just make sure we are doing our part to keep people healthy and to make sure that we catch it fast so that we don’t unknowingly spread the virus,” Cordova said.

The district has seen a significant uptick in the number of staff members participating in testing as it has begun the process of returning to in-person learning, she said. At the end of last week, close to 3,000 tests had been completed, some of which may have been for staff members who took multiple tests.

The tests are voluntary for DPS employees and available to all of them, with the district paying $10 per test. Cordova said the district is asking school-based staff members who tend to have more interactions with more people to consider getting tested every two weeks and central office staff to get tested at least once a month.

Currently, results reveal a positivity rate of about 1%, which Cordova deems good news since the rate is so low and positive cases are being caught.

The testing system helps ensure a safe reopening for the district of about 92,000 students. Within school districts around the world that have successfully reopened, broad access to fast testing has been a key component, she said.

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