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COVID Testing

Staff and students are required to participate in COVID testing. City Schools has three free, convenient, and effective in-school testing programs to monitor and respond to coronavirus infections and help keep school communities safe. 

- Diagnostic tests for staff and eligible students with symptoms
- Screening tests for staff and eligible students without symptoms
- NEW in January 2022: “Test to stay” for close contacts of a student or staff member who has COVID

Important: Parents/guardians must complete and return a consent form for all students.

Download the English consent form to your school (Spanish Consent Form)

Diagnostic tests

If a staff member or student starts to feel sick at school with symptoms* that may mean a COVID infection, trained school staff will do a test. At the K-8 level, staff or students with symptoms will receive a rapid antigen test that involves swiping a small swab (like a Q-tip) just inside the nose. Results take about 15 minutes. If it’s positive, the student/staff member will be sent home to isolate for at least five days.

Rapid tests are very effective at identifying someone who has a high viral load and is therefore contagious. But to make sure that a COVID infection isn’t missed, a student or staff member with COVID symptoms whose rapid test is negative will be given a PCR test (spit or nose swab). The student/staff member must then isolate at home while waiting for the PCR result (usually less than 24 hours). If the result is positive, isolation extends for at least five days.

At the high school level, staff or students with COVID symptoms will get a saliva-based PCR test. They must isolate at home while waiting for the PCR results, which usually come back within 24 hours. If the result is positive, isolation extends for at least five days.

* Symptoms that prompt an in-school test for COVID include fever (100.4 degrees or higher), sore throat, cough, difficulty breathing, diarrhea or vomiting, new severe headache, or new loss of taste or smell. (For someone with a chronic condition – e.g., asthma – symptoms should be something new or unusual.) Please note that the parent/guardian of a student with these symptoms will be contacted to pick up their child. Even for students or staff members who receive a negative result from an in-school test, time will be needed to recover from the symptoms, which may be caused by some other type of infection (e.g., a cold or the flu). If an in-school test is not done because a student is not eligible (i.e., the parent/guardian has not agreed to testing on the consent form), that student cannot return to school until they provide a negative COVID test from a third party.

Screening tests

These in-school tests are designed to find infections early, before symptoms develop. This is key to reducing infection for everyone, including students and staff but also their families and others in our community.

Previously, City Schools required unvaccinated students and staff members to be tested weekly, either at no cost in school or by a third-party medical provider at personal arrangement and expense. New: Unvaccinated students must continue to be tested weekly, but vaccinated students are now strongly encouraged to participate as well. Weekly in-school tests are also required for unvaccinated staff.

Note that anyone who has had COVID in the past 90 days does not take part in screening tests. This is because traces of infection can linger, giving a positive test result after the person has recovered and isn’t contagious.

Also, as with diagnostic tests, only students whose parents/guardians have agreed to testing on the consent form are eligible to participate in free, in-school screening tests. (Note that unvaccinated students whose parents/guardians have not agreed to in-school testing must continue to provide documentation of weekly screening tests by a third-party medical provider.)

Download, complete, and return the consent form to your school: English | Spanish

In elementary and elementary/middle schools, screening is done with “pool” testing. Once a week, groups of staff and eligible students in classroom pods swipe the inside edges of their own noses with short swabs. The samples collected on the swabs for each group are tested together, with results available in about 24 hours. A negative pool test means that no one in the group has coronavirus infection; a positive test means that at least one member of the group has COVID. New: Because of the high rate of infection with the new “omicron” variant of the virus, the size of each pool group has been reduced to 5 to 15 people wherever possible. (Previously pools included 15 people or more.) This will help speed the identification of any positive cases.

New: When there is a positive result from a pool test, everyone in the group is tested individually with a rapid antigen test. Anyone who tests positive must isolate at home for at least five days. (Previously, individuals got PCR tests and everyone had to quarantine at home while waiting for results; see “Test to stay” below for more information about this change.) If rapid tests for everyone in the group are negative, then each member of the group receives a follow-up PCR test. This is done to resolve the conflicting results (positive pool test, but negative individual tests for the members of the pool) and ensure that everyone can be confident that cases have been correctly identified. 

If a pool comes back positive, because individual contact tracing is not done for pool testing, the whole class will be asked to mask for 10 days following the positive pool tests. For middle school students who transition to classes separate from their homeroom pool throughout the day seating charts will be utilized to identify individuals who are close contacts that should mask for ten days.

In middle, middle/high, and high schools, each staff member and eligible student provides a weekly saliva (spit) sample for PCR testing. Results are available in about 24 hours. Anyone who tests positive must isolate at home for at least five days. Individuals who have been identified as close contacts should wear a mask for ten days.

Watch how the screening tests work

Watch the video

Elementary School

Nasal swipe

Watch the video

Middle and High School

Spit test

Watch the video

Middle and High School (in Spanish)

Spit test

Test to stay

Based on the most up-to-date guidance from federal, state, and local health authorities, many  students or staff who have had close contact with a COVID-positive person will no longer have to miss important time in school. 

Students and staff will get in-school rapid antigen tests if they are part of a pool that tests positive or if they are identified as a close contact to an individual who tests positive. Anyone who tests negative can stay in school. (Previously, members of a positive pool had to quarantine at home for at least 48 hours while waiting for results from a PCR test.) 

Important exception: If a student with COVID lives in a household with other City Schools students who are not vaccinated, those students must quarantine at home while the COVID-positive household member isolates. Also, if an unvaccinated student or staff member lives in a household with someone who has COVID, they must quarantine at home, even if they have a negative test result.  

* A student is a close contact if they have been within three feet of a person with COVID for 15 minutes or more. An adult is a close contact if they have been within six feet of a person with COVID for 15 minutes or more.

FAQs about COVID testing at City Schools

Browse below to find more detail about COVID testing requirements and practices, as well as recent updates to in-school testing. Can’t find the answer to your specific question? Email

Who has to be tested for COVID?

All students and unvaccinated staff must have a COVID test if they have symptoms of COVID or are a close contact of someone who is COVID positive. Also, students who are not fully vaccinated must take part in weekly screening tests (and vaccinated students are encouraged, but not required, to take part as well).

City Schools provides tests free at school for anyone who develops COVID symptoms during the school day. Weekly screening tests are also free for students whose parents/guardians agree on the consent form. (Download the consent form in English or Spanish.)

If you do not want your child to get tested at school, you can opt out. In this case, you will be required to get COVID testing for your child in line with City Schools’ policies and submit proof of testing to your school. If you do not do so, your child can be excluded from school activities (like playing on sports teams). Keep in mind that if you opt out, you must arrange to get your child tested any time they have COVID symptoms or are a close contact of a confirmed COVID case. Also, if your child is not vaccinated, they must get weekly screening tests. These COVID tests must be done by a medical provider and you must pay any associated costs; at-home testing with a rapid test kit does not meet the requirements. If you still want to opt out of in-school testing, contact your principal for more information about how to do so.

What if my child feels sick at home, and I think they might have COVID?

Please call your medical provider to ask about an appointment for a COVID test for your child or use an at-home testing kit. (These kits are available at many pharmacies and are given out free at libraries and other community locations at scheduled times). You can also visit the City of Baltimore’s website to find a location for COVID testing. 

Important: Do not send your child to school if he or she has symptoms. City Schools only provides in-school diagnostic testing if symptoms develop at school.

What if a staff member or student had COVID already? Do they need to take part in testing?

Individuals who have had a confirmed case of COVID do not take part in testing for 90 days. This is because traces of the virus can linger for that long and result in a positive test, even when the person has fully recovered and has no symptoms. 

Do vaccinated students and staff have to take part in COVID testing?

Students whose parents/guardians have agreed to testing on the consent form and who develop symptoms at school that could mean a COVID infection will be tested, regardless of vaccination status. They will also be tested if they are a close contact of a confirmed COVID case. Also, all unvaccinated staff members participate in weekly screening tests.

Vaccinated students do not have to participate in weekly screenings or test to stay, but they are strongly encouraged to do so, particularly if there are surges in COVID cases in the community. Consent forms must be turned in for all students. (Download the consent form in English or Spanish.)

How often will my student be tested?

In-school screening tests are once a week. (This may change in future based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and conditions in the community.) 

City Schools also tests students if they have COVID symptoms in school. Finally, students can get a rapid test if they are a close contact of another student or staff member who has COVID (and their parent/guardian has agreed to in-school testing on the consent form). If the test is negative, they can stay in school and not be sent home to isolate. (This test-to-stay program is currently available in elementary and elementary/middle schools and will be available in all schools by late February 2022.)

Can parents accompany their students during the testing?

Parents may request to visit school to observe COVID testing, but given testing occurs each week parents cannot always be with their children during in-school COVID testing. 

Please be assured that the tests don’t hurt, and students as young as pre-k can do the nose-swiping themselves. School staff will help make sure that testing is fast, gentle, and done in a positive environment for all children. 

For diagnostic testing of students with symptoms, school staff will call parents/guardians to pick up their child promptly after the test.

How long does it take to get results from in-school tests?

For students and staff with symptoms of COVID infection, results are usually available 24 to 48 hours after the test. Rapid tests may also be used in some schools, with results available within minutes. 

For elementary and elementary/middle school staff who take part in weekly screening, pool results are usually available 24 to 48 hours after the test. If a pool is positive, families are notified. All members of the positive pool take a rapid antigen test, and those results are available in about 15 minutes.

For middle, middle/high, and high school students and staff, results from the saliva-based screening tests are usually available in 24 hours. Families can check for students’ test results by following these directions

For the test-to-stay program, results from the rapid antigen tests are available in about 15 minutes.

What happens when test results come in?

Individuals tested in school because of COVID symptoms (diagnostic testing)
After the test, the student or staff member must isolate at home and wait for results. For a staff member, if the test is negative, he/she can return to school once feeling better. If it’s positive, then the staff member must isolate for at least five days and should contact a medical provider about treating symptoms as needed.

For students, if the test is negative, they can return to school as soon as they’re feeling better. If a student tests positive, he/she must isolate at home for at least five days and any unvaccinated family members who also attend or work at City Schools must quarantine for the same period. Your school will contact you to discuss the requirements and to ask questions to help with contact tracing. Families should also contact their medical provider about treating symptoms as needed.

Elementary and elementary/middle schools
For screening tests, if a positive pool result comes in before the end of the school day, all students in that pool will immediately take a rapid antigen test performed by the health and safety coordinator and testing assistants provided under contract with Concentric by Ginkgo. After testing is completed, families will be notified of the positive pool and their child’s individual rapid test results.

If the positive pool results are received after school hours, families will be notified and students will be invited back to school the following day. Rapid tests will be performed first thing in the morning.

Students who have positive results from the rapid tests will isolate immediately in the wellness room, and families will be notified to pick up their child. The school will send out notification of a positive case and follow disinfecting protocols. City Schools also notifies the Baltimore City Health Department, and the school will cooperate in contact tracing. 

Students who test negative for COVID remain in school for a regular day but will be required to mask.

If all students in the pool test negative, they will receive follow-up PCR tests to resolve the conflict between the positive pool test and the negative individual tests. Students will be required to mask in this scenario.

Middle, middle/high, and high schools
Students who test positive through the individual saliva-based test go immediately to the wellness room, and their parent/guardian is notified to pick the student up from school. City Schools also notifies the Baltimore City Health Department, and the school will cooperate in contact tracing. Close contacts will be offered a rapid test and will be required to mask for 10 days following exposure. The school will send out a notification of the positive case.

Besides identifying cases of COVID, are the results of in-school tests shared or used in other ways?

Results are shared with City Schools, students’ parents/guardians, test providers, the Maryland Department of Health, the Baltimore City Health Department, and CRISP (Maryland Health Information Exchange), but only for public health purposes (such as contact tracing and taking other steps to prevent the further spread of COVID in your school community).

Test providers include the Baltimore City Health Department, Maryland Department of Health, Mako Medical, and the Maryland State Department of Education (symptomatic testing); ShieldT3 (saliva-based PCR testing); Abbott BinaxNOW (rapid antigen tests); and Concentric by Ginkgo (pool testing, rapid antigen tests, and individual PCR testing). Any changes to test providers will be shared with parents and posted on this website.

Results are used in accordance with all applicable laws, Board of School Commissioners policies, and City Schools regulations protecting student privacy and the security of your child’s data. Information that may be shared includes your child’s name and test results, date of birth or age, demographic data, school or program participation, classroom/cohort/pod, enrollment and attendance, parent/guardian names, address, telephone, mobile number, and email address.

While no medical experimental research will be conducted using test samples, City Schools and its contractors monitor aspects of the virus that causes COVID (e.g., tracking viral mutations by sequencing viruses and microbes in samples collected through the in-school testing program) for epidemiological and public health purposes. City Schools also is collaborating with local universities, including Morgan State University, University of Maryland, and Johns Hopkins University, on an initiative to figure out which public health strategies are most effective. For example, the initiative may use data from the testing program to look at the effect of changes to how often we test or the use of rapid tests in addition to PCR tests. 

Why is City Schools offering COVID screening tests? Why not just test someone if they feel sick?

Screening tests help identify cases early and quickly, before symptoms develop. This means that anyone who is positive for COVID can isolate quickly, lowering the risk of spreading the virus. 

“Test to stay” is based on the latest medical research, best practices, and input from the Baltimore City Health Department, our public health advisors, and other stakeholders. It provides a fast and effective way to find out if a person exposed to COVID has actually become infected, before symptoms develop. This also has the benefit of reducing the number of people who must quarantine and miss important time in school while waiting for test results. With test to stay, students and staff can get a rapid antigen test if they are a close contact of a COVID-positive person in school (or were part of a positive pool in a screening test at an elementary or elementary/middle school). If the rapid test is negative, they can stay in school.

What if my child cannot be screened due to their documented disability?

Staff will work with parents to ensure that students with disabilities are prepared for screening and that tests are done in ways that are sensitive to their needs. If your child has a documented disability and you are concerned that screening would impair your child’s mental or physical health due to that disability, please contact your child’s school to discuss how to proceed. 

What happens if my student is anxious and does not want to take the tests?

From our experience of the past year, we know that students generally find the tests easy and comfortable.  If your child is nervous or anxious, staff will do their best to provide support and encourage her or him to complete the test, but we may need to skip your child on that particular day. Please talk with your children about testing and let them know that the school needs to make sure they are healthy. Remind children that the test doesn’t hurt, is quick, safe, and gentle, and keeps them safe.

Do students who play on school athletic teams have to take part in screening tests?

Unless they have a religious or medical exemption, students in athletics must be vaccinated and therefore do not have to participate in screening tests. (Those who have exemptions do have to take weekly tests.) However, like all students, vaccinated student-athletes are strongly encouraged to participate, particularly when cases are surging in the community. (Download the consent form in English or Spanish.)

How many students are in a pool for pool testing?

Beginning in January 2022, pools range from 5 to 15 individuals (when possible). Previously, the pools were 15 people or more. Smaller pods help laboratories produce results more quickly and will help us narrow down which students need to quarantine, which means fewer missed classroom days for students.

Why do students have to get individual follow-up tests if they’re in a positive testing pool?

Pooled testing is anonymous: Each student in the learning pod submits a sample, but the samples are tested together and not tracked back to the specific student. If any of the samples from a pool indicate a potential positive COVID case, individual tests are required to determine who in the pod is positive.

Why not just give everyone an individual test? 

Pooled testing is an efficient way to test for COVID in groups even if no one has symptoms. It significantly cuts down on the time needed to test large groups of students and staff, while enabling the district to offer PCR testing every week and minimize disruption to teaching and learning. This means we get early warning that COVID may be present in a learning pod or classroom and that further testing is needed.

Related pages

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Quarantine Requirements

for COVID-19 Cases

Learn more about health and safety

Health and Safety Procedures

COVID-19 rules for students and staff

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Winter Return to Learning

Updates on safety measures