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Colorado teachers and school staff now have access to rapid, at-home COVID-19 testing to monitor their health during the spring semester as they await vaccination.
Health solutions company eMed this week began sending the BinaxNOW swab tests directly to the homes of educators in districts that have signed up to receive them. The tests, which offer results in 15 minutes, are one tool state and health officials hope will bolster in-person learning this semester, after a rocky fall marked by frequent disruptions and abrupt shifts between in-person and remote classes.
On Monday, Gov. Jared Polis personally delivered several packs of testing kits, each with six tests, touting the rapid results as a way to not only prevent asymptomatic cases from reaching schools, but also to offer teachers peace of mind. Tests cost $25 each or $150 for a month’s supply, but the state is providing them for free in February.
“That gives the colleagues of the teacher greater confidence the school environment is safe, the families of kids greater confidence that it’s safe and most importantly can prevent spread of the virus by identifying these cases early,” Polis said during one of his deliveries.
Colorado is the second state behind Ohio to launch the test delivery program. More than 90 districts have signed up, Polis said. The governor’s commitment to reopening schools is what attracted eMed to roll out test delivery here, said CEO Patrice Harris.
“Colorado will continue to serve as a model for the value of widespread testing strategies for mitigating the spread of COVID 19 and getting us all back to work, school and play,” she said.
Some districts, such as Cherry Creek School District, have been conducting surveillance testing since the summer. Teachers and students there are eligible for a free COVID-19 testing through a partnership with COVIDCheck Colorado, one reason the district has not signed up for the BinaxNOW program, said spokesperson Abbe Smith.
That has not been the case for Doug Shults, who teaches sixth grade at Challenge to Excellence Charter School in Parker. If teachers felt like they needed to be tested, they were encouraged to do so on their own. Shults has never had a COVID scare or been tested, but having access to rapid tests makes him feel more comfortable going into the classroom. The prospect of teacher vaccinations beginning Feb. 8 does, too.
Challenge to Excellence serves 549 students, about 60% of which returned in person this semester, Principal Richard Barrett said. There’s been one outbreak this academic year.
“That’s helped ease some of that stress and nervousness,” Shults said. Some students enrolled in remote learning have returned to classrooms because of the safeguards, which has proved to him how vital face-to-face schooling is.
“To be able to see them they light up, their energy level. They’re really so happy to be around their friends again and be part of a normal school,” Shults said.
When a school or district opts in to offering the tests, eMed works directly with employees to send a package of six tests to their homes. The Colorado Department of Health and Environment recommends testing every five days for ongoing screening so the package covers a month of testing.
Each BinaxNOW test comes with a nasal swab, a small bottle of reagent and a test card. To administer the test, individuals run the swab around both nostrils before folding it into the test card with reagent. eMed connects each tester with a medical expert online to walk through the process and discuss the results, Harris said.
Results are reported and tracked like any other COVID-19 test. Testers also get a digital certificate of their results.
Despite criticism that COVID-19 tests can produce false negatives or positives, Harris said BinaxNOW’s accuracy rate is 96%.
In addition to surveillance testing, districts can also use the kits to diagnose sick kids at school, to monitor the health of students who cannot wear masks, such as special needs students, or to shorten quarantine stays for those who may have been exposed to a COVID-19 positive person. According to the health department’s updated quarantine guidelines, a teacher or student can return to school if they produce a negative test result seven days after a possible exposure.
CDPHE purchased 2 million test kits for the month and is providing them to educators for free in February. Going forward districts will likely split the cost with the state.
Jeffco Public Schools is still considering if it will offer BinaxNOW testing to its employees. Tammy Schiff, a district spokeswoman, said the district would be expected to cover 75% of the $150 it costs for six tests — an estimated $112.50 per month per employee.
Polis is “hopeful and optimistic” the state will be reimbursed for the tests by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and therefore able to offer them to districts for free. Even if it can’t, Barrett at Challenge to Excellence said whatever it costs to offer his 54-person staff some security is worth the price.
“We as educators are quite frankly on the frontlines with everyone else and we are exposed constantly,” he said. “We’ll invest in our teachers, whatever it takes to get through this.”