San Diego Unified gives families COVID test kits to take home over winter break

At-home antigen COVID-19 testing kits are being sent home to students
Students will be given at-home COVID-19 antigen rapid tests this week Gage Elementary School on Wednesday in San Diego. Students are encouraged to take a rapid test before returning from winter break.
(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Students are asked to test three days before returning to school and again on the first day back


San Diego Unified is sending its 97,000 students home with rapid COVID-19 testing kits this week in anticipation of a potential COVID spike over the winter break.

Each kit contains two COVID-19 antigen rapid tests. The state recommends families test students once three days before they return to school and then again on the day they return to school.

San Diego Unified is not requiring families to report their COVID test results, but if a student tests positive, the district wants them to stay home and report the test result to their school, said Susan Barndollar, executive director of nursing and wellness for San Diego Unified. The tests are free.

COVID case rates have been rising in California with the onset of the Omicron variant and with holiday travel and gatherings, prompting Gov. Gavin Newsom to reinstate a statewide mask mandate this week. Currently San Diego County has a COVID case rate of 14.2 per 100,000 residents and six reported cases of the Omicron variant.

Because these tests are antigen tests, they will not identify which variant of the coronavirus a person has, Barndollar said. A person who tests positive would need to follow up with a polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, test to see if it’s Omicron or another variant, she said.

Students who have contracted COVID within the past 90 days should not use the take-home antigen test, district officials cautioned, because the test will show up positive regardless of whether or not they currently have COVID.

San Diego Unified has been offering COVID testing once a week at every school, and the district offers testing at its central office at 4100 Normal Street seven days a week, Barndollar said.

San Diego Unified tested 26,274 people during the week of Dec. 5, the latest week for which testing data is available. Of those, 29 tests, or 0.1 percent, came back positive.

The district has about 97,000 students and 14,000 staff at more than 170 schools.

Testing participation is low partly because many students and staff are vaccinated, and the district has advised that vaccinated individuals don’t have to test regularly for COVID, Barndollar said.

About 38,200 students have opted in for weekly school COVID testing, according to a district spokesperson.

So far the district has recorded five outbreaks, which is when there are three or more confirmed COVID cases at one school among people who live in different households within a two-week period.

COVID vaccinations have been extended to all children in K-12 schools as young as 5 years old. Even so, Barndollar said, testing is still important because the Omicron variant spreads and breakthrough cases are still emerging among vaccinated people.

“It is our best chance to keep other students safe and staff safe, to be able to identify infection, find it early and be able to notify people,” Barndollar said.

San Diego Unified’s board has mandated that students age 16 and older and staff must be fully vaccinated. The policy is slated to take effect Jan. 24, and students and staff must have gotten both doses by Dec. 20.