Emily Robinson, a special education teacher at Vine Street School in Bangor, smiles when she sees the face of one of her students on the computer screen during a Zoom meeting. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

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Melissa Szymanski is an elementary school teacher in Windsor, Connecticut. She wrote this column for The Hartford Courant.

Teachers are a keystone of the nation’s economic recovery. We need to return to classrooms so that students can learn, and parents can return to work.

Yet across the country students, teachers and families are in limbo, contending with virtual schooling, which isn’t an ideal learning environment.

To get teachers like me safely back in schools as soon as possible, we must reduce the risk of spreading this disease to our colleagues and students. I want to get back in the classroom just as much as the families whose kids I teach. By routinely taking COVID-19 tests, even if asymptomatic, we can reduce the school outbreak risk that would significantly set back reopening timelines.

A major barrier to achieving this testing peace of mind is the lack of cost certainty around COVID-19 diagnoses. If teachers like me have to worry that COVID-19 tests might generate ruinous medical bills, we will be far less likely to get the care we need and our students deserve. Testing price transparency is the solution.

I speak from personal experience. This spring, I tried to get a COVID-19 test but didn’t fit the profile required to receive one at the time. Instead, I was forced to go to the ER to get a chest X-ray, but I also received an EKG, IV fluids, a flu test and a pregnancy test, because I was in rough shape when I arrived. I was hit with $4,500 worth of associated bills, brought down to $3,200 by insurance, in the ensuing weeks. (It turned out that I had contracted COVID-19. While my medical health has recovered, my financial health has not. Fighting these bills has been a part-time job in and of itself).

I’m not alone. There are also countless stories of patients like me who are denied COVID-19 tests yet receive five-figure bills for other related exams. Patients who do receive COVID-19 tests have been charged roughly $6,500. While these bills are outliers, tests regularly range from hundreds to thousands of dollars.

According to a Gallup Poll, nearly one in six Americans with COVID-19 symptoms would not get tested for fear of unknown costs. Hidden health care prices are, therefore, not only a financial threat but also a public health menace. Hidden prices will delay the safe reopening of classrooms and the associated economic growth.

If teachers — and all Americans — knew exactly what they had to pay for a COVID-19 test and that they wouldn’t be subject to additional related charges, more people will get tested and fewer will get infected. This price certainty will give us the freedom and control to get tested when and where we want.

Health care price transparency offered systemwide can provide health care consumers with cost certainty over all their care, ending the bizarre status quo where patients are blinded from prices until they receive their bills in the mail weeks and months after treatment.

Price transparency can also lower runaway health care costs. With access to real prices, patients can shop around for less expensive care and find better value the same way we do for auto repair, hair styling and life insurance.

Empowering patients with prices will enable us to steer clear of price gouging providers that charge $6,500 for COVID tests, $20,000 for broken arms or $600 for Band-Aids. Vast price differentials for the same health care services in the same market will converge. Ensuing market competition will put further downward pressure on prices.

According to a recent nationwide poll, nearly 90 percent of Americans and 98% of women under the age of 40 support this commonsense reform. Almost no other issue in today’s politically polarized environment enjoys such overwhelming bipartisan support.

By providing COVID-19 testing cost certainty to teachers, health care price transparency can make classrooms safer and return children faster, allowing parents to return to work, boosting the economic recovery.

Just like how students rely on teachers to provide them with knowledge, teachers and all Americans need health care price information.