By Conor McCue

THORNTON, Colo. (CBS4) – One month after opting into the state’s weekly in-school COVID-19 testing program, Mapleton Public Schools is hoping to get more students and staff to take part. Meanwhile, state leaders are urging more districts and schools to join the free program.

Weeks into the new school year, there have already been COVID-19 twists and turns at Explore Pre K-8 in Thornton.

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“The new variant kind of took hold, and all of a sudden we were backpedaling a little bit,” said director Jim Lefebvre.

(credit: CBS)

Among masking and social distancing, Lefebvre says in-school testing has helped navigate it all. Explore is one of 18 Mapleton schools enrolled in the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s (CDPHE) free testing program for all K-12 Colorado schools.

It provides weekly, on-site rapid antigen testing for students and staff of schools participating. The program is voluntary, and students under the age of 18 are required to have parental or guardian consent to participate.

The tests are provided by Mobile Health, a provider chosen by CDPHE.

“So far it’s been highly effective,” Lefebvre said.

“It sure helps knowing that our teachers are safe and that our kids are safe and that we can focus on teaching and learning.”

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As of last week, 439 Colorado schools had enrolled in the weekly program. So far, about 5,200 students have opted in, which amounts to less than one percent of the state’s K-12 population.

In a press conference, Gov. Jared Polis said the state could do significantly more testing, if the interest was there.

“We want more schools to implement that to have a significant impact on reducing the spread of the virus, so please encourage your school to do so,” Polis said.

(credit: CBS)

According to Mapleton, about a third of students and staff are signed up, with highest rate coming among elementary level kids. Last year, even more students and staff took part in a different testing program, so there is hope more parents will opt their kids in.

“We are requiring weekly screenings for a variety of programs, and those include athletics, performing arts, and ROTC,” said Jill Fuller, Executive Director of integrated services for the district. “So, we have 100% in some of our programs, but we would love to see 100% in our school enrollment too.”

At Explore, Lefebvre says last year’s testing program helped catch cases before they spread. Now the goal is to replicate that with even more students taking part.

“One hundred percent is the goal, and when we have everyone testing and knowing exactly where we stand, we are the most safe,” he said.

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The state is hoping to incentivize student participation in the program with gift cards. Students can receive $25 for the first COVID-19 test and then $10 for every subsequent test administered each week.

Conor McCue