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Everything you need to know about Jeffco’s student COVID testing incentive program

This fall, Jeffco students can earn gift cards by participating in an optional weekly COVID-19 testing incentive program offered by Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE). Jeffco Schools began the first official week of testing on Sept. 13.

We talked to four Jeffco students who are participating to learn more about what the testing is like.

What Jeffco students said about testing

The students we interviewed range in age from 9 to 16, including a fifth grader, sixth grader, seventh grader, and high school junior. The two older students are both fully vaccinated.

None of the students we interviewed are required to test weekly for extracurricular activities. Jeffco PEN is not naming the students to protect their privacy.

Why did you want to get tested?

9-year-old: So that I can know I don’t have COVID and to earn money.

11-year-old: I wanted to get tested because I wanted to make sure I didn’t have COVID.

12-year-old: To know that I am safe and to keep others safe. And to get money.

16-year-old: I wanted to get tested because then I’d know if I had COVID or not. Also, surveillance testing is a good thing because then we know who has COVID or not.

What was it like?

9-year-old: It was very quick.

11-year-old: Well, it’s kind of like a cotton swab but it’s much less fuzzy. They take a swab, a nice long swab, and they just swab it around your nose for a minute or so — probably less than a minute — and then they swab it around on the other side. And then you’re tested. [Editor’s note: healthcare workers swab each nostril for 10-15 seconds per nostril.]

12-year-old: I walked in and answered a short questionnaire on the iPad.  Then I walked into a room with a nurse, sat down, and got my nose swabbed.

16-year-old: It was easy. I went in, I answered a couple of questions, and then they swabbed both my nostrils and I was out of there.

What did it feel like?

9-year-old: It felt like just getting my nose pushed a little bit. It didn’t hurt.

11-year-old: It’s kind of hard to describe. It feels kind of like a sort of bristly, sort of soft cotton swab that’s getting rotated around your nose.

12-year-old: It felt like something was pushing in my nose. It did not hurt.

16-year-old: Like nothing. It didn’t feel bad.

What would you tell other kids about getting tested?

9-year-old: That they should do it so they know they are safe.

11-year-old: It’s pretty easy. It may feel a little weird but it’s worth it. It’s super quick, you get the results super fast, and there are other things that are much weirder. Gift cards do make it more enticing because if you do one little test, you get some money.

12-year-old: It’s nice to know that you are safe and it is definitely worth $10 (or $25). It was easy and not a big deal.

16-year-old: They should definitely do it because it allows us to know the numbers of COVID in our school and it allows us to remain safe during these unprecedented times.

FAQ about the student incentive program

The student incentive program is completely voluntarily and open to Jeffco students in all grades. All students can participate whether or not they are vaccinated.

In Jeffco, Mobile Health is administering the tests at the school testing sites. Mobile Health uses the Abbott Labs BinaxNOW antigen test.

Testing is free to schools and families, and the testing program and gift cards are administered through CDPHE. Participating districts or schools can request to receive $2.50 for each test administered through the program to help reimburse schools for administrative costs related to testing.

After the original publication of this article, Cameron Bell, executive director of media relations and public information, told Jeffco PEN that Jeffco had not entered into an agreement for that reimbursement. We contacted CDPHE for clarification.

After talking with staff at the Colorado State Joint Information Center on Friday, Jeffco PEN learned that CDPHE is currently working on an agreement with the Colorado Department of Education to arrange distribution of funds for participating school districts and schools.

“Earlier this week, we sent information to districts allowing them to opt out of that reimbursement. We are working with Jefferson County School District to determine if they would like to opt-out of that reimbursement program,” they said.

Bell also confirmed that information Friday afternoon, stating that Jeffco Schools received an email from CDPHE on Wednesday afternoon. The email included a toolkit, which also includes instructions for opting out of the testing reimbursement program. Bell said that Superintendent Tracy Dorland is asking the COVID testing team to come together next week, hopefully, to discuss Jeffco’s options.

At Thursday’s board meeting, Jeffco Schools reported that it had completed 7,061 student tests as of Oct. 13. If Jeffco does not opt out of compensation for the CDPHE program, reimbursement to-date would total approximately $17,652.50.

Tell me about the gift cards

As an incentive, CDPHE is offering gift cards to students for each test. Students who take the first test will receive $25 on a gift card, followed by an additional $10 for each subsequent test.

Students will receive the gift card in the mail the next month, using the mailing address provided on the parental consent form. For example, students who started testing in September and took three tests will receive a $45 gift card in early October.

Gift cards will be recharged after each month in which students participate.

Any Jeffco students who are using the school testing program for required testing for athletics or other extracurriculars are also eligible for gift cards.

How do I sign my child up?

Students under the age of 18 must have a parental consent form on file in order to be tested. The form only needs to be filled out once, and parents or guardians do not need to be present during the test.

To fill out a consent form, go to the Jeffco Schools COVID-19 Testing page and scroll down to “Step 2: Register with Mobile Health.”

Image showing how to register Jeffco students for the COVID testing incentive program

There, click the drop-down menu bar that says “School Site Registration Links – Click to Open.” Click on the “register here” link for the school your child attends. Families will need to complete one form per child.

Image showing the dropdown menu to register students for the COVID testing incentive program

Although families have the option to save and print a copy of the consent form, students do not need to bring a copy of the consent form to the test site.

Once the form is completed, look for the most convenient testing site.

Testing is offered five days a week at all Jeffco high schools, usually alternating between morning and afternoon testing. For example, Lakewood High School offers testing from 2 to 5:30 pm on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and morning testing from 9 to 12:30 pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Students may also test at any COVID testing facility, including those through CovidCheck Colorado and Jefferson County Public Health (JCPH). Some of those sites may also offer saliva testing.

Any student who may be experiencing COVID-19 symptoms should not use the school testing site and should instead test at one of the outside COVID facilities.

What test is Mobile Health using?

Mobile Health uses the BinaxNOW antigen test. The BinaxNOW test is the same test that Colorado is using for the at-home rapid testing program this fall.

The BinaxNOW test only involves swabbing just inside each nostril, and does not require swabbing deeply inside one’s nose.

According to the package insert, the test is intended for “individuals with or without symptoms.” The test is authorized for use in children ages 2 and older if the sample is collected by an adult. It is also authorized for self-test by individuals ages 15 and older.

Picture of the BinaxNOW test package insert.

What happens when students come to test?

The trickiest part of the first test might be finding where testing is taking place in the high school. Calling the main office ahead of time to find out where Mobile Health will be in the school can be helpful because the Jeffco students we interviewed reported that schools haven’t had signs to direct students to the testing location.

Once there, students (or family members, if present) will be asked to enter their last name and birthday on an iPad. That will locate their consent form.

Then they will be asked a short set of questions, including whether they work in healthcare, live in a congregate (or group) home, and whether they have any COVID-19 symptoms. The questions take less than a minute to answer.

Next, students sit in a chair and a healthcare worker swabs each nostril. As soon as they finish swabbing, students are free to go.

Results typically arrive by email within 30 minutes of the test.

The four students interviewed reported that testing took less than five minutes each time.

Why test healthy students each week?

CDPHE states that the program is designed to more quickly identify potential cases of COVID-19. More than 50 districts in the Denver metro and mountain areas are participating in the weekly COVID testing program, as are the Charter School Institute and some private schools.

Weekly surveillance testing is designed to be one layer of mitigation. Used with vaccination, masks, and improved ventilation, testing can help prevent outbreaks and keep students in person in school.

The JCPH Public Health Order (PHO) also requires testing for all unvaccinated staff as well as unvaccinated high school students participating in extracurricular activities.

Although some have questioned the need for testing, when schools pivoted to remote learning in November 2020, nearly half of the Jeffco high school COVID outbreaks at the time were connected to sports. The testing requirement aims to prevent another round of extracurricular-related outbreaks and keep schools open this fall.

Jeffco Schools recently published a report on ventilation and indoor air quality in Jeffco Schools that addresses the work the district has done to improve ventilation during the pandemic.

This fall’s Delta variant is twice as contagious as last fall’s strain

In addition, the Delta variant is twice as contagious as the strain last fall, causing twice as many infections as last year.

This puts students under age 12, who are too young for any of the approved vaccines, at greater risk. 

In one example, an unvaccinated teacher in California read aloud and unmasked to 24 students while infected and symptomatic even though the school required masks indoors at all times. All classrooms also had portable high-efficiency particulate air filters, and doors and windows were left open.

Half of the students became ill with COVID-19 as a result. The outbreak included an additional 14 people — mostly parents and siblings of the infected students — in the outbreak.

As of Oct. 11, COVID cases continued to increase among children 0-9 in Jeffco. More than half of cases in Jeffco Schools involve elementary schools. In addition, since school started in mid-August, Jeffco high schools have accounted for nearly 30 percent of positive cases. Adolescent hospitalizations for COVID are ten times higher among unvaccinated children.

For more information about current pediatric COVID-19 cases and outbreaks in Jeffco, please check out our Jeffco PEN COVID dashboard page.

[Editors note: This story was updated on Oct. 15 to include new information and clarifications about CDPHE’s plans to reimburse districts $2.50 per test administered.]

Lisa Cook

Lisa Cook, Ph.D., is a writer, editor, musicologist and Jeffco resident since 1999 with two children attending Jeffco Schools. Lisa earned a BA from Valparaiso University, a Masters in Music from Colorado State University, and her Ph.D. in musicology from the University of Colorado at Boulder. When not working, she can be found running (ideally on mountain trails) with Midnight, her miniature poodle. Please visit our "About Us" page to learn more about Lisa and our other writers.

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