Entrepreneurs walked out, used foul language as Colorado school’s COVID tests struggled, emails reveal
In the first weeks of Colorado’s COVID-19 school testing program, a team hired to perform the tests showed up late for their assignment at an elementary school in Montezuma County.
When they arrived, they couldn’t get their technology to work, refused to do the work for which their company was responsible under its agreement with the state, and “used pretty foul language” during their work.
In a separate incident, also in September, another team from the same contractor, New York-based Mobile Health, “quit their job” in the Swink School District just as the district was supposed to start testing, according to a report. Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment email received from district employee.
The Colorado Sun has obtained, through a Colorado Open Records Act request, more than 200 pages of email records from CDPHE related to COVID-19 testing in schools.
The emails provide a window into the early malfunction of the federally funded COVID-19 school testing program, which has been slow to pick up speed and has drawn little student participation.
It is not known whether there were other similar incidents that occurred under the program as the agency did not respond to a question as to whether there were any others, and CDPHE officials have retained or redacted many files. They contend that some of their emails with a contractor may be considered “internal correspondence” and say that “disclosure of this information would cause substantial harm to the public interest.”
The new information comes as schools have become breeding grounds for the virus. Almost 40% of COVID cases linked to known outbreaks in Colorado have been in schools as the delta variant spreads rapidly among students and staff, although the lack of testing in many districts means the cases and epidemics can be underreported.
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In the first incident, which occurred in the Mancos School District in far southwest Colorado, Superintendent Todd Cordrey told The Sun his district encountered “a series of challenges with Mobile Health as as supplier “.
Cordery noted that the company âwas having issues with how their technology worked when they came to test our students and staff. They struggled to staff the site. They were at odds with their practices. And that caused us a lot of challenges and frustration, as we tried to make this opportunity available for our students and staff to get tested. “
Cordery confirmed that two Mobile Health employees spoke to each other using “language that is not appropriate in a school environment.”
Mobile Health ended up bringing in a new team to administer the tests at the school and “they’ve been really successful in their jobs” in recent weeks, Cordrey said.
Swink Superintendent Kyle Hebberd did not respond to requests for comment about a mHealth team leaving work in his district in southeast Colorado.
Dave Schramm, marketing director for Mobile Health, told The Sun in an email that the incidents happened “early in the program, and as you might expect, challenges arise from something of this magnitude.”
Schramm added that âthe Mobile Health team solved these issues, working collaboratively with our national and local partners. Mobile Health is proud to say that we are meeting all program expectations.
CDPHE spokesperson Gabi Johnston wrote in an email to The Sun that âwe appreciate our partnership with school districts and schools enrolled in the school assessment program, and when they raise concerns or we identify places that need improvement, we work with suppliers and school district to find solutions, which we did quickly in both cases.
Johnston said CDPHE has paid Mobile Health more than $ 1 million for testing so far this academic year. She did not provide a figure on how much the state paid for the program as a whole, which includes two other test contractors in addition to Mobile Health and another contractor who manages the gift card incentives.
The issues revealed in the emails are just a small part of the dysfunction and delays with Colorado’s rollout of the school testing program. The state didn’t start testing until the second week of September, weeks after school started in many districts, including those with the most students.
The state first found out it was to receive $ 173 million in federal funding to pay for testing in March under the American Rescue Plan Act. Federal officials awarded the money to the state on April 8, according to a federal database.
But the formal request for companies to submit proposals on how to help the state carry out the tests was not released until June 25, almost three months later. It took three weeks after the July 16 deadline to submit proposals to CDPHE to narrow the choice to four companies.
The State then missed its internal deadline for signing contracts with companies to launch the program. CDPHE officials didn’t sign the agency’s first testing contract with Mobile Health until August 20, putting the state nearly three weeks behind its own schedule.
This gave Mobile Health 18 days to start operations in Colorado ahead of the state’s scheduled start date of September 7. (CDPHE never explained why it chose a September 7 start date even though many school districts started classes weeks earlier).
But even with signed contracts, the program got off to a slow start. Some districts reported that CDPHE had been slow to respond to requests for additional information about the program.
During this time, participation in the program was limited and mainly concentrated in a few places.
CDPHE told The Sun that its contractors administered 29,626 tests to students in November. This reflects a weekly average of less than 1% of the state’s public school students.
Governor Jared Polis previously gave the districts the responsibility to scale up their participation in the program, and CDPHE echoed this sentiment in an email to The Sun.
“We urge all schools and districts to take advantage of this free program which will help minimize disruption from disease transmission,” Johnston wrote.