By Shawn Chitnis

DENVER (CBS4) – The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment says it has more than $173 million in federal funding allocated for testing students in the state for the upcoming school year. The agency says it is considering proposals from companies to administer tests frequently and report those results as concerns over the Delta variant will likely remain in the fall.

“The ability to test students is going to be key to achieving one of our priority goals which is maximizing in-person learning,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, the president of the Colorado Education Association. “If we’re planning this in advance then that gives districts the time to prepare, to put those plans into place, to communicate with parents and families, to let everyone know what the process will be.”

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(credit: CBS)

CDPHE said in an email to CBS4 it would gear testing toward K-12 students and educators. The response hopes to slow disease transmission, particularly among students too young to be vaccinated. The age group unable to get any COVID-19 vaccine now and likely still without an option once school starts is also a priority for the CEA, the state’s largest teachers union.

“Testing is a key component to keeping students safe, to keeping educators safe, and of course to maximizing that in-person learning,” Baca-Oehlert told CBS4 on Tuesday over a video conference call. “Unfortunately, we had to learn a lot of lessons the hard way just by experiencing things that we had never experienced before but now that we have experienced it, we can plan for it.”

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While the 2021-22 school year will be the third impacted by COVID-19, the CEA president says they have much more understanding to guide them in the fall even with unknown challenges like the Delta variant ahead of them. She applauds the use of mask requirements, constant handwashing, and social distancing in the previous school year and hopes it will be part of the response when classes resume.

“They were a relatively safe place and that’s why we want to really pay attention to what’s needed to be in place so that they can remain safe,” she said of schools. “A large portion of our student population does not have access to a vaccine yet, so we want to make sure our utmost priority is that our students are learning but that they are doing so in a safe way.”

Students did follow the guidelines given by schools last year, an encouraging sign about what they will do if those rules return. The CEA says it wants to see educators included in the discussions and decisions about school operations related to COVID-19. The organization is also waiting to see what guidance the CDC offers before the next academic term begins.

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“One of the big things that we learned is that students love school and they will do what’s needed so they can show up to in-person learning, be with their classmates, be with their teachers,” Baca-Oehlert said.

Shawn Chitnis