Schools consider virus test program

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Local school districts are considering a partnership with a Denver foundation to provide frequent COVID-19 testing and symptom tracking for teachers and students when school starts later this month.

Ridgway and Ouray both referenced the program, a partnership with COVID-Check Colorado, in their initial plans for returning to in-person classes. Several other districts in the state, including Denver Public Schools, have already committed to the program, including planning for teachers to be tested every two weeks.

COVIDCheck Colorado is part of “a social benefit enterprise of Gary Community Investments Company,” providing a downloadable app for symptom tracking and access to COVID-19 testing with shorter response times for results. The company, which provides funding to both for-profit and nonprofit initiatives in education, has contracted with labs to process tests with guaranteed turnaround time, CEO and President Michael Johnston said. “We’re testing almost 50,000 teachers in the month of August alone. We commit to deliver a certain number of tests and they commit to build the capacity they need to handle the number.”

The Telluride Foundation is coordinating the local effort to work with the company.

“To have any kind of businesses reopen or schools reopen, you basically have to do three things: you have to test, you have to track and you have to trace,” said Paul Major, Telluride Foundation CEO and president. He was introduced to COVIDCheck Colorado earlier this spring, and brought the idea to regional superintendents, he said.

“We don’t have an opinion on it, it’s strictly up to the school district and superintendents and boards, but if they want to do it, we told them we would play a coordinating role,” Major said.

Ouray Superintendent Tod Lokey and Ridgway Superintendent Susan Lacy both said it’s too early to discuss the program, as their plans are still being developed.

In an email to parents on July 30, Lacy wrote “all 5 UnBOCES districts are working with the Telluride Foundation to possibly secure a private testing company with 24 hour testing turn around to test staff and symptomatic cases. This company also provides an App that would help us work as a community to track and trace.” The five districts that are members of the Uncompahgre Board of Cooperative Educational Services (UnBOCES) are Ridgway, Ouray, Telluride, Norwood and West End Public Schools in Naturita, Nucla and Paradox.

Lokey discussed the symptom tracking application at Ouray’s July school board meeting. In an interview with the Plaindealer he said he was still discussing it with the Telluride Foundation, but it could likely be paid for with federal coronavirus relief funds and could potentially provide staff testing a few times each month. This could be key for schools reopening and remaining open to in-person instruction, as testing through the state health department has experienced significant delays.

The symptom tracking app, which students would use before coming to school, costs $2 per person per month, and each COVID test costs sio, Major said. “There are a lot of details around how extensively would the school use it and therefore what would be the cost.”

The foundation “might financially support some of it,” Major said, but it’s too early to estimate how much the foundation would pay.

COVIDCheck Colorado has already formed partnerships with several districts on the Front Range, and expanding to a rural area would bring some logistical challenges. While they have drive-through testing sites set up in the Denver area, “we would need to find partners to collect the samples” in Ouray County and the surrounding area, Johnston said. He’s “optimistic” about accomplishing that; from there, the samples would be shipped to labs through FedEx, the same way they’re currently shipped in other parts of the state.

The labs “make us a guaranteed commitment on turnaround,” he said. “Almost 100 percent of the tests we’ve administered are back in 48 to 72 hours.”

That’s much faster than state labs, which have recently had lengthy delays. Results for a woman from Texas who was tested while visiting Ouray, who became the county’s second non-resident coronavirus case, took more than three weeks to come back.

The shorter turnaround time and frequency of testing available through the company could help local districts, Major said. “Unless you’re the NBA, you can’t test everybody every day,” he said. Districts are “looking for any tool that’s feasible, practical and affordable that will make the schools safer.”

They’ll have flexibility in how they use it: Ridgway or Ouray could choose to do baseline testing of all staff without symptoms at a certain point, and determine the frequency of testing throughout the school year. Symptomatic students or teachers would have access to the testing as needed.

The symptom tracking app could be used to identify individual students or employees who should be tested, and to more generally monitor community health, Major said. Students and families would fill out the symptom survey at home each day, though Lokey said it could be done at school for a limited number of students who may not be able to access it at home.

The information is aggregated on a dashboard for the school, which can help identify trends and flag individuals for testing. Johnston said there are different versions of the app which districts have chosen to use; in the version most schools will use, students and teachers will look at the list of symptoms each day and will attest if they don’t have any. If they have new symptoms, they may be encouraged to stay home.

The symptom tracking effort could raise privacy concerns for some, though Major said the app is compliant with the federal law governing health information, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Positive tests must be reported to county and state public health officials, but access to the information collected through the application would be limited to authorized employees, and use of the app would likely be voluntary, Major said. “Everything about COVID and teachers and kids going back to schools opens up so many challenging issues... there are clearly privacy issues,” he said. “We’ve got a community-wide problem, so we’re either going to stand up as a community and try to solve it together, or it’s going to continue to have devastating effects on the economy, on learning, on health.”

The app also includes a “contact diary” component that could accelerate contact tracing, Johnston said. A teacher who tests positive could “open the app and put down, who are the folks I’ve been around for the last 5 or so days.” That information could be immediately submitted to local public health officials, instead of waiting for a contact tracer to reach out to the teacher, and school officials could also be notified and arrange for testing for the teacher’s close contacts more quickly.

Major said the regional districts are seriously considering the program because it’s “a practical, affordable, effective approach,” which is already being used by larger institutions, including Denver and Aurora Public Schools and Colorado Mesa University.

Liz Teitz is a journalist with Report for America, a nonprofit program focused on supporting journalism in underserved areas. Click here to make a tax-deductible donation to support her work here in Ouray County.