Back in school? What you need to know about COVID-19 testing for students

Expanded testing guidelines now cover K-12 and college students returning to school, sports and other activities.

A students walks in a hall with taped arrows on the floor.
A student walks through the halls of Carlton High School while following the marked traffic flow arrows on the floor in September in Carlton, Minn.
Alex Kormann | AP 2020

State health officials are now urging COVID-19 testing for children and college students who are returning to school.

The announcement Thursday formally expands the list of who should seek a coronavirus test, and comes days after thousands of elementary school students began attending school in person for the first time in months.

So what’s a kid, parent or college student to do? Here’s what you need to know about the latest testing guidelines:

Who should get tested now?

Anyone who goes to school is encouraged to get tested, but the Minnesota Department of Health is recommending regular testing especially for those who are 12 to 25 years old given that this age group tends to be more independent and more socially active outside their household pod.

Others who should be tested include those who participate in youth sports or other extracurricular activities, even if they are not in classrooms.

What about children under age 12?

Even though young children appear to be at lower risk for transmitting the virus, Assistant Health Commissioner Dan Huff said those under 12 should still get tested, too. He recommends families go together to get it done.

“Go to one of our community test sites,” he said. “Most children do like to spit, so our saliva tests should work pretty well, although they do have to generate a fair amount of spit.”

When should they get tested — and how often?

The recommendation is for parents to take their students or older students to take themselves to get tested if they’re planning to show up to a school building or college campus in person. They may go to their health care providers or a community testing site. They also may request a mail-in saliva test kit from the state.

If students are already in school, the guidance still applies. Minnesota health officials say children going to school should get tested every two weeks or monthly going forward.

Previously, what was the advice for getting a COVID-19 test?

State officials recommended tests for those who experienced symptoms or had known exposure to COVID-19. People who worked in places that remained open during the pandemic, like first responders and health care workers, were encouraged to get tested regularly, too.

Why the change now?

Students across the state are reentering classrooms, youth sports and other activities that are exposing them to people outside their households.

There is also more capacity for testing than what is currently being used after a steep dropoff in late December, and state officials say testing is a powerful tool in the fight against COVID-19.

The hope is that Minnesota will be able to use this testing to help slow the spread and find cases, especially among young people who are less likely to experience symptoms.

Are school leaders being told to require testing among students?

This is not something school administrators have to either enforce or facilitate. And it’s not a requirement for anyone. This is an update to recommendations from health officials about who should get tested. School leaders contacted by MPR News said they were unaware of the guidance before it came out Thursday.

Is testing happening at schools?

Yes, but it’s for teachers and staff, not students. It’s been going on for three weeks. School districts are required to offer biweekly testing, though staff aren’t required to take the tests. So far around 17,000 educators have been tested. Huff says the positivity rate among them is very low — just a fraction of a percent.

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