A coronavirus testing program for schools that Gov. Jared Polis has touted as a way to keep students safe and in class isn’t working as designed because not enough kids are getting swabbed, Polis told The Colorado Sun on Monday.
Fewer than 5,000 students — less than 1% of Colorado’s K-12 student population — are signed up for the weekly testing program, according to state data provided to The Sun late last week. That’s not enough to be useful to track cases and prevent outbreaks, Polis said.
Schools would have to test at least 1 in 5 kids for it to really make a difference, he said. Right now, the average is fewer than 25 kids per school for the couple hundred schools that have actually started testing.
“It gives us some surveillance data, it’s useful to the state,” he said, “but it’s not enough concentrated in any one site to have a significant positive safety impact on any particular school.”
The testing program is backed by $173 million in federal funding as part of the American Rescue Plan Act and was aimed at boosting testing rates over lackluster numbers last academic year. But, so far, Colorado is running into problems similar to those plaguing schools across the nation.
In the meantime, Colorado students are catching COVID.
As of last week, there were 156 active coronavirus outbreaks in K-12 schools linked to 2,150 cases, including 1,900 among students, according to data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
The Polis administration is blaming schools and parents for the program’s slow start.
“Parents have to want it,” he said. “Schools have to implement it. We could be doing far more testing of kids if the demand was there.”
In a testing plan the state submitted to the feds, CDPHE ranked “lack of parental support” as the No. 1 barrier to implementing the screening program, and wrote in “lack of school district willingness to participate” as the No. 2 barrier.
The state has tried to shore up demand by offering financial incentives to students, offering to pay them $10 for every test. Polis said the state had wanted to offer students $25 per test, but that the federal government only approved $10 payments.
Gabi Johnston, a CDPHE spokeswoman, told The Sun in an email that “the state needs more schools to get off the sidelines and enroll in this program and more parents to consent to having their children tested so that we can keep students, teachers and communities safe.”
More than 657 schools have expressed interest in joining the state program, though only 473 are fully enrolled, fewer than half of which have actually started testing. Johnston did not explain what has kept schools that have expressed interest, but not yet signed up, from enrolling.
She also did not provide any explanation for why fewer than half of the 473 enrolled schools have actually started testing.
The program only started operating Sept. 7, weeks after many districts had already opened their doors to teachers and students amid a wave of delta variant infections in Colorado and across the country.
Schools that enroll are responsible for distributing parental permission forms, determining what days of the week they will be testing and establishing protocols for responding to positive tests. Because students are minors, they need their parents’ permission to enroll.
“We realize it takes some work for the schools,” Polis said.
But some districts have hit snags and say state officials are the ones dragging their feet.
A Pueblo School District 60 spokesman said the district has expressed interest in the program, “but we’re still waiting to hear back from the state.”
In Mesa County Valley School District 51, the state had assigned the district one testing vendor, Mobile Health, but then switched them over to the other company the state is using, Novir.
Brian Hill, Mesa County’s assistant superintendent, said last week they were still sorting out logistics for the program but that conversations with the new company seemed promising.
Hill said the district originally tried to have testing available to students and staff at the beginning of the academic year, but had trouble getting enough supplies and equipment.
“Unfortunately, we started off the school year without having any in-school testing like we were hoping we would have,” he said. “If we had had this option at the beginning of the school year, it would have been great because we could have had in-school testing already up and running. But that wasn’t an option for us.”
Then the district hit a delay when the state switched the company they were working with to Novir.
Johnston, the CDPHE spokeswoman, said Novir took over testing at some of the schools originally assigned to Mobile Health after the state signed the newer contract. Johnston said the state has experienced “minor” problems with Mobile Health related to logistics planning and student enrollment, but that they worked quickly to resolve them and expressed confidence in the company’s ability to do the job.
Jefferson County Public Schools, which has testing sites at its 18 high schools, its transportation terminals and the district’s headquarters in Golden, told The Sun it doesn’t have any data on how many students are participating because “the data is owned and managed by CDPHE and their testing provider, Mobile Health. We understand they are working on a way to share this data with us, but it is not yet set up.”
Some districts simply aren’t interested in enrolling in the state program.
Denver Public Schools, which has the most students of any district in the state, isn’t using the program at all. The district is relying on community-based testing sites that offer more accurate PCR tests, instead. Spokesman Will Jones said the district has partnerships with COVID-Check Colorado, Denver Health and Children’s Hospital.
“Leaving testing to the experts will allow DPS school staff to spend their time prioritizing the academic and social-emotional needs of students,” Jones wrote in an email.
The CDC has said that serial screening using rapid antigen tests, like the testing strategy the state is trying to use, “can play an important role in testing as a prevention strategy due to the short turn-around time for results.” Under the state’s program, CDPHE can request the use of the more sensitive PCR tests, which have a longer turnaround time, to confirm cases.
Cañon City Schools also hasn’t taken advantage of the state testing program, with administrators skeptical that it would be a good fit for the district of about 3,300 students. District leaders don’t intend to opt into the program in the future.
“The big piece is we don’t have the capacity to test kids in schools on a regular basis,” said Paula Buser, director of support services for the district. “That’s not the business we’re in.”
Buser said her district, which is southwest of Colorado Springs, lacks enough trained staff to conduct testing, not to mention the space and time. She also questioned the benefits of testing students.
Despite the hurdles, Polis is hopeful more students will enroll in the school testing program in the coming weeks.
“I think there’s room for improvement,” he said. “Ultimately it will just take parents wanting to do it and schools wanting to do it. There is some of that today, and I think there will be a steady build of this over time.”