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Masked children greet Gov. Jared Polis as he visits a second grade class in Aurora. (Cherry Creek School District handout)

A federally funded statewide program to test students, faculty and staff across Colorado for COVID-19 is still struggling to expand, with less than 1% of public school students being tested weekly.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 continues to spread in schools. As of last week, there were 199 active coronavirus outbreaks in K-12 schools linked to 3,453 cases, including 2,997 cases among students, according to data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. A few weeks earlier, there were 156 active outbreaks with 2,150 cases.

There are nearly 900,000 students enrolled in public schools in the state, along with almost 56,000 teachers. That doesn’t include students and teachers in private schools, who are also eligible to sign up for the program. 

But Gov. Jared Polis continues to express hope that the testing program, funded by $173 million from the federal government, will expand.

“Last week we tested about 5,000 students on a weekly cadence,” Polis told reporters Monday. “That’s up from 4,000 the week before, 3,400 the week before and 2,900 the week before that. So it’s going up.”

(A spokesman for the governor later clarified that those figures also include testing for school staff).

Polis also pointed out that the school COVID testing program has so far caught as many as 70 positive cases, which the governor argued meant hundreds of potential cases were prevented.

The program is funded entirely by $173 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under the American Rescue Plan Act that Congress approved earlier this year.

Polis has said the state needs more buy-in from parents and schools, but some districts say they’ve had to wait weeks to hear back from the state after expressing interest in the program.

The state is offering financial incentives to kids who agree to weekly testing, including $25 for the first test, and $10 for each test after that.

Polis said Monday that the state wanted to offer more, but federal officials only agreed to the $10 payments. He argued the program would have attracted more students had the state been able to offer three, four or five times as much money to kids. He also pointed to a need to raise more awareness within districts that are offering testing.

“I think fundamentally, we need to get word out about the program,” Polis said Monday. 

The state has contracts with two companies to perform the testing. One is Mobile Health, based in New York City. That contract is valued at $15 million and runs through the end of November.

The other contractor is Novir, based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which has a contract with the state worth $12 million that also expires at the end of next month.

School districts that sign up to participate in the state’s program can choose from two different options: a full-service model in which one of the state contractors provides the staff, equipment and supplies needed for testing, and a direct-ship model in which the company provides the district with training and support, and ships all of the necessary equipment and testing supplies directly to schools.

Polis noted that there’s no “silver bullet” to address COVID-19 in schools, saying measures like mask wearing, opening windows and keeping kids home when they’re sick are also important. The most effective strategy, he emphasized, is vaccinations, which are currently only approved for children 12 years of age and up. 

Polis said he was confident that children ages five to 11 will be able to get vaccinated against COVID-19 in the coming weeks.

Staff writer Jesse Paul contributed to this report. 

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 4:09 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021, to correct the amount of the weekly incentive payment to students. Students will be paid $10 per weekly test after the initial $25 for the first test.

Daniel Ducassi is a former Colorado Sun staff writer.