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Third-graders are seen on their second day of school on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021, at Second Creek Elementary School in Commerce City. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

In the first weeks of Colorado’s COVID-19 school testing program, a team hired to perform testing showed up late to their assignment at an elementary school in Montezuma County. 

When they arrived, they couldn’t get their technology to work, refused to perform work their company was responsible for under its deal with the state and “used some pretty foul language” while on the job.

In a separate incident, also in September, another team for the same contractor, New York-based Mobile Health, “walked out of their job” in Swink School District just as the district was supposed to start testing, according to an email the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment received from a district employee.

The Colorado Sun obtained, through a request under the Colorado Open Records Act, more than 200 pages of email records from CDPHE related to COVID-19 testing in schools. 

The emails provide a window into early dysfunction in Colorado’s federally funded COVID-19 school testing program, which has been slow to ramp up and attracted little student participation.

It is unknown whether there were other similar incidents that occurred under the program as the agency has not responded to a question about whether there were others, and CDPHE officials have withheld or redacted numerous records. They argue that some of their emails with a contractor can be considered “internal correspondence” and say that “to release this information would cause substantial harm to the public interest.”

The new insights come as schools have become breeding grounds for the virus. Nearly 40% of COVID cases related to known outbreaks in Colorado have been in schools as the delta variant rapidly spreads among students and staff, though the lack of testing in many districts means cases and outbreaks may be underreported.

MORE: COVID outbreaks have shut down some Colorado schools. Will holidays and cold weather make things worse?

In the first incident of trouble, which happened in Mancos School District in far southwestern Colorado, Superintendent Todd Cordrey told The Sun that his district ran into “a series of challenges with Mobile Health as the vendor.”

Cordrey noted that the company “had trouble with their technology working, when they came out to test our students and staff. They had trouble staffing the site. They were inconsistent with their practices. And that caused us a lot of challenges and frustration, as we were trying to make this opportunity available for our students and staff to get tested.”

Cordrey confirmed that two Mobile Health employees were speaking to each other using “language that’s not appropriate in a school environment.”

Mobile Health ended up bringing in a new team to administer testing in the school and “they’ve been really successful with their work” in recent weeks, Cordrey said.

Swink Superintendent Kyle Hebberd did not respond to requests for comment about a Mobile Health Team walking out of their jobs in his southeastern Colorado district.

Dave Schramm, chief marketing officer for Mobile Health, told The Sun in an email that the incidents occurred “early in the program, and as you might expect challenges arise out of anything of this magnitude.”

Schramm added that “the Mobile Health team has resolved these issues, working collaboratively with our State and Local partners. Mobile Health is proud to say that we are meeting all program expectations.”

CDPHE spokeswoman Gabi Johnston wrote in an email to The Sun that, “we value our partnership with the school districts and schools enrolled in the school testing program, and when they raise concerns or we identify places that need improvement, we work with the vendors and school district to find solutions, which we quickly did in these two instances.”

Johnston said CDPHE has paid Mobile Health more than $1 million for testing so far this academic year. She did not provide a figure for how much the state has paid for the program overall, which includes two other testing contractors besides Mobile Health and another contractor that handles gift card incentives.

The problems revealed in the emails are just a small piece of the dysfunction and delays with Colorado’s rollout of the school testing program. The state didn’t start testing until the second week of September, weeks after school had started in many districts, including those with the largest number of students.

The state first found out it was set to receive $173 million in federal funding to pay for the testing back in March as part of the American Rescue Plan Act. Federal officials awarded the state the money April 8, according to a federal database. 

But the formal request for companies to submit proposals on how to help the state perform the testing didn’t go out until June 25, nearly three months later. It took three weeks after the July 16 deadline to submit proposals for CDPHE to narrow down the choice to four companies.

The state then missed its internal deadline for signing contracts with companies to get the program going. CDPHE officials didn’t sign the agency’s first testing contract with Mobile Health until Aug 20, putting the state nearly three weeks behind its own schedule. 

That gave Mobile Health 18 days to get its operations in Colorado up and running before the state’s scheduled start date of Sept. 7. (CDPHE has never explained why it chose a Sept. 7 start date even though many school districts began class weeks earlier).

But even with contracts signed, the program has had a slow start. Some districts have said CDPHE has been slow to respond to requests for more information about the program.

Meanwhile, participation in the program has been scant and mostly concentrated in a few places. 

CDPHE told The Sun that its testing contractors administered 29,626 tests to students in November. That reflects a weekly average of less than 1% of the state’s public school students.

Gov. Jared Polis has previously put the onus on districts to step up their participation in the program, and CDPHE echoed that sentiment in an email to The Sun.

“We urge all schools and districts to take advantage of this free program that will help minimize disruptions caused by disease transmission,” Johnston wrote.

Daniel Ducassi is a former Colorado Sun staff writer.