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David Storey is processing the samples for COVID-19 test at Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment in Denver on March 14, 2020. (Pool photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

Colorado plans to launch a massive, new coronavirus testing program available to schools statewide starting this fall, a measure health officials and educators say is crucial to minimize disruption to the education of kids too young to be vaccinated, particularly as a new Delta variant spreads across the state.

Officials at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment think the state may need multiple vendors to make a testing program available to Colorado’s nearly 900,000 public school students, as well as teachers and school staff. Colorado is currently soliciting bids to operate the program and has $173 million in federal money to spend.

Under the plan, students, faculty and staff in participating districts would be able to sign up for free weekly rapid tests. The expanded testing effort is the latest sign that the pandemic will affect students and teachers for a third academic year even as COVID-19 restrictions are dropped.

“Our goal is to ensure testing is readily available to all students and educators to help ensure students can safely return to school in-person with minimal disruption,” Jessica Bralish, a spokeswoman for CDPHE, wrote to The Colorado Sun. “Testing will be a critical component of our COVID-19 response in the fall, particularly with the spread of the Delta variant.”

The state is looking for companies that can provide Abbott’s rapid BinaxNOW COVID-19 antigen test, as well as the more sensitive RT-PCR tests that detect the genetic material of the virus to confirm positive rapid tests. Companies could offer either a full-service model, providing all of the support services and test collection, processing and reporting, or a “direct-ship” model, providing all of the testing supplies and shipping, along with a digital platform for support services.

The bid also includes an optional section to help the state set up a reward program so students who participate can get a gift card for every week they’re tested.

“Too young to be vaccinated”

Bralish said that by offering regular testing to schools, the program “will help slow disease transmission, particularly among students too young to be vaccinated, and will minimize disruptions to in-person learning.”

Currently, children under age 12 are not eligible for any COVID-19 vaccines.

DENVER, CO – NOVEMBER 7: Julianna Sandoval, 24, pauses for a COVID-19 nasal swab test from Dr. Sarah Rowan from Denver Health. Rowan and other medical staff administer the free drive-up COVID-19 testing in the parking lot of Abraham Lincoln High School on November 7, 2020 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)

Dr. Glen Mays, chair of the Department of Health Systems, Management and Policy in the Colorado School of Public Health, said that testing children, particularly those too young to receive a vaccine, will be a critical measure in keeping schools safe for in-person learning during the next school year.

“I think school settings are quickly becoming our most vulnerable settings now that we’re into this post-vaccination era,” Mays said. “They’re the settings where we’re likely to have the largest concentrations of people, kids, who are unvaccinated. And that makes it a new priority.”

Testing will allow schools to quickly identify positive cases and also identify the contacts of people who are infectious, particularly among those who are unvaccinated, so that they can isolate, Mays said, and “don’t continue another cycle of outbreaks in the schools.”

Although research has shown that young children appear to be less likely to transmit the coronavirus and are much less likely than older people to experience health complications due to infection, Mays remains a strong advocate of testing.

“We also know that kids do spread the virus and therefore we need to use all the tools in our toolbox to keep them protected,” he said.

CDPHE announced last week in an amended public health order that it would no longer require face masks in schools. However, Mays said to keep unvaccinated kids protected, schools will need to continue masking, social distancing and, when possible, ensure there’s adequate ventilation.

Teachers support more testing

The Colorado Education Association also supports the testing strategy, particularly as the Delta coronavirus variant sows uncertainty.

“We are in support of testing and think it’s the right strategy to do if we want to maximize in-person learning,” CEA President Amie Baca-Oehlert said.

Constant transitions between different modes of learning challenged both students and educators during the past academic year as schools responded to case counts and outbreaks, Baca-Oehlert said.

Many teachers have questions about what the beginning of the school year will look like. The availability of the vaccine has eased a lot of fear among educators, but Baca-Oehlert said they still worry about how safe their students are as they wait to be vaccinated.

Last school year, many districts relied on routine testing of teachers and students to try to get ahead of the spread of the disease and assess the need for quarantines and closures. COVIDCheck Colorado, a testing network developed by Gary Community Investment Company and The Piton Foundation, partnered with 30 districts to facilitate testing among staff and students throughout the school year.

COVIDCheck Colorado CEO Eric Parrie said the initiative administered tens of thousands of tests, which ultimately helped many districts keep classroom doors open. 

“Many of them reported to us that they were able to be in person and provide the best learning and teaching for kids because they were able to stay safe and informed and keep their families and staff and teachers safe and informed as well,” Parrie said.

A drive-up COVIDCheck Colorado covid testing site is pictured in a Colorado School of Mines parking lot in Golden on Monday, Jan. 11, 2021. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

COVIDCheck Colorado partnered with CDPHE to set up dozens of testing sites across the state where members of the general public could access testing starting last November. In the spring, the testing network also launched testing inside schools

COVIDCheck Colorado isn’t interested in bidding on the state’s new program, but Parrie said he anticipates the network will continue to partner with 30 districts and may add more in the coming school year.

Big money on the table

Colorado is trying to launch this huge new rapid testing program after CDPHE faced a public dispute with a testing vendor in its roll out of a previous rapid testing program. A Miami-based company called eMed, which ran an at-home testing program for the state that used Abbott tests, accused Colorado officials of mismanaging the program, the Colorado Springs Gazette reported. According to the Gazette, the CEO of eMed accused the state of using only a fraction of the 2 million tests they promised to buy, though the state says it never agreed to buy all 2 million tests, only that it would buy up to that number.

State officials defended their handling of rapid testing programs, side-stepping a question about the possibility that potential vendors may be reluctant to work with Colorado as a result of the dispute.

“We successfully implemented the Binax At-Home testing program, and when telehealth services were temporarily interrupted, individuals were able to perform the test on their own and report the results to their health care provider,” Bralish said. “We also manage the Bulk Binax program, which has distributed over 2.7 million tests across the state.”

This new program, however, could be a much bigger challenge for the state as the potential scope is enormous. The state has $173,450,305 in federal money to pay for the program as part of an award from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Though it’s unclear what actual demand for testing will be, with nearly 900,000 students enrolled in Colorado public schools and more than 55,000 teachers, the price tag for a year’s worth of weekly testing could easily exceed $100 million.

Bid documents state that “service is likely to be provided by multiple vendors,” so officials could break it up into smaller contracts, which would also mean more contractors to keep tabs on.

Potential bidders have until July 16 to submit their proposal, with the contract estimated to start Aug. 2 and last through the school year.

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...

Daniel Ducassi is a former Colorado Sun staff writer.