Testing Children for COVID-19

As Californians get vaccinated for COVID-19, we are starting to relax our COVID-19 pandemic rules.  Children are going back in person to child care, school, summer camp, and sports.  Families are starting to take trips for vacation or to see relatives.

When people of different households mix together with these new activities, they risk spreading COVID-19.  We can reduce the risk with tools like wearing masks and physical distancing, staying home when sick, and getting vaccinated.  Another useful tool to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is testing. 

There are two reasons to get a test.  A diagnostic test looks for COVID-19 in people with symptoms or who have been exposed to COVID-19.  A screening test looks for COVID-19 in people without symptoms or known exposure. 

By getting tested for COVID-19, a person can find out if they are contagious and isolate themselves from others so they don’t spread the virus.  A school, child care, or sports program can use testing to prevent outbreaks and stay open. 

Types of COVID-19 tests

There are two main types of tests that can tell if a person has COVID-19, even if they aren’t showing any symptoms: PCR or nucleic acid diagnostic tests and antigen screening tests.

Adapted from the US Food and Drug Administration’s “Coronavirus Disease 2019 Testing Basics,” April 2021 https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/coronavirus-disease-2019-testing-basics

When to get your child tested for COVID-19

One main reason to get your child tested is if you think they might have COVID-19. 

If your child has COVID-19 symptoms:

  • Your child will not be allowed to go to school, camp, or child care if they have any COVID-19 symptoms.  You can find out if your child has COVID-19 by getting them tested.
    • If the test is positive, then you and your family should stay isolated from others so that you do not spread the disease. 
    • If the test is negative, your child can return to school, camp, or child care once their symptoms resolve.

If your child has been exposed to COVID-19:

  • Your child may have been exposed if they spent time in close contact or indoors with a person who was sick with COVID-19 (or who got sick soon after).  Even if your child is not sick, contact your health care provider to find out if your child should get tested.

Now that we are returning to normal activities, testing is also being used for groups who will be spending time together regularly in places like classrooms and sports facilities.  Regular testing can catch early cases of COVID-19 before symptoms start, and protect the group from an outbreak.

If your child goes to in-person school, camp, or sports practice: 

  • If your child plays a sport that is held indoors or does not allow for physical distancing, their team may require regular testing, even if your child has no symptoms. 
  • Schools and day camps may also encourage regular testing, with or without symptoms. 
  • Overnight camps are likely to require a negative COVID-19 test from all campers before the session begins. 

When traveling by airplane, people from multiple households share close quarters, sometimes for many hours.  When people travel to other states or countries, they risk bringing COVID-19 to other communities or bringing it back home with them. 

If you fly to another country:

  • Before you leave, you and your children may need to test negative for COVID-19.  Check with the country you are visiting to find out.
  • You will need a test for your return flight.  All travelers aged 2 and older need to be tested 1-3 days before they fly back in to the United States.  If you test positive, or if you do not get a test, you will not be allowed to board your return flight.
  • After returning home, you should get another COVID-19 test within 3-5 days.  If you are not vaccinated against COVID-19, you should also quarantine for the 7 days after your return.

If you fly to Hawaii:

  • Before you leave, any unvaccinated people in your party aged 5 and older must test negative for COVID-19.
  • You do not need a test for your return flight.

Places to get tested for COVID-19

  • Your health care provider can test or refer you for testing.
  • Pharmacies, community centers, churches, local businesses, and other sites are working with the state and counties to provide tests.  To find a test near you, go to https://covid19.ca.gov/get-tested or call your local health department. 
  • Some schools offer free testing on site for their students and staff.

There is no cost for COVID-19 testing if it is medically necessary.

References and Resources

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website contains advice about traveling during COVID-19:

The California Department of Public Health has released this guide to testing: https://www.cdph.ca.gov/Programs/CID/DCDC/Pages/COVID-19/Updated-COVID-19-Testing-Guidance.aspx

This article was made possible with funding from the UCSF Chancellor's Fund.

This article was updated on 10/13/2021 to reflect that vaccinated people no longer have to test negative for COVID-19 before flying to Hawaii.