More tests are on tap for schools

September began with a rising number of COVID-19 cases and families wary of sending children back to school. the ongoing pandemic creates more uncertainty for families. Children younger than age 12 cannot be vaccinated against COVID-19 and tens of thousands of children around the nation have been sickened by the virus.

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) and the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) August 17 announced updates to Minnesota’s statewide education testing program. Schools will now have a variety of testing options available to them as they work to develop local testing programs to keep students and staff healthy, safe and in their classrooms. MDE will also provide grants to support testing efforts in schools.

Education Commissioner Heather Mueller and Health Commissioner Jan Malcom announced the existing options.

“Getting people vaccinated as soon as possible is critical for our long-term success against COVID-19,” MDH Commissioner Jan Malcolm said. “Meanwhile, for those who are not yet vaccinated, regular screening testing is an important tool to know they are healthy, get the care they need if they are sick, and prevent the spread of the virus to others. Regular testing, along with masking and the other layers of prevention, gives our schools, students, families and educators the best chance of getting the school year off to a successful and healthy start.”

Based on current levels of community spread across Minnesota, the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and MDH recommend that all unvaccinated school-age children and school staff get tested for COVID-19 at least weekly throughout the school year.

Unvaccinated children involved in extracurricular activities or sports should be tested more frequently. Vaccinated students and school staff should get tested if they are experiencing symptoms or were exposed to someone who has COVID-19. Testing should be used in addition to other layered prevention strategies as outlined in best practices recommendations.

Offering testing in schools is strongly recommended given the rise in Delta variant cases. This school year, schools will have access to different types of tests. Districts, charter schools, tribal schools, and nonpublic schools will be able to assess which tests work best for their school community and have autonomy in developing their testing programs.

“We must use every available tool to keep our students in classrooms because we know that is best for their well-being and academic success,” said Mueller. “We stand ready to partner with and support our school leaders across the state as they develop local COVID-19 testing plans that keep our students, staff and families healthy and safe.”

Testing at school makes access to tests more equitable, which is one of the many reasons the State of Minnesota encourages all schools to create their own testing program and have helped provide the resources to do so. Schools will be able to choose from an array of tests to create their own testing programs. Schools can also take advantage of “hot spot testing: to work with local public health or MDH to request a temporary testing location in response to local outbreaks.

Grants to support COVID-19 testing in schools will be made available through MDE. Every school district, charter school, tribal school and nonpublic school offering a testing program is eligible for a grant. Grant money can be used to fund staff to support, administer, or execute testing, or to purchase tests through a vendor.