A child undergoing a PCR test at an Abu Dhabi school following the launch of in-school testing on September 7 Image Credit: ADEK

Abu Dhabi: A PCR test is known to be the most effective method to screen for COVID-19. While adult residents in the UAE have been undergoing regular screenings since the start of the pandemic, more and more children are now taking the test.

The increased PCR testing among children is a result of national regulations, which call for children physically attending school to be tested regularly based on their age and vaccination status. The testing is part of a comprehensive plan announced by the National Crisis, Emergency and Disasters Management Authority (NCEMA) to ensure a safe return to school.

In Abu Dhabi, all schools now offer free on-campus testing for students. Vaccinated school-going children in other emirates can also get free PCR tests every month. This means that students will often undergo the PCR tests in the absence of their parents.

To assist with these screenings, here is a quick guide on what you can do to make the process easier:

What is the PCR testing requirement for students?

The requirement applies to all students physically attending classes in public, private and charter schools in the UAE, as well as to students enrolled in universities, nurseries, daycare centres, training institutes, and universities.

  • At the start of the school year or term, all students must present a negative PCR test result received within the past 96 hours.
  • Students aged up to 12 years must get a PCR test every month from then onwards. These tests can be saliva-based or nasal PCRs.
  • Students aged 12 years or more must get a PCR test every two weeks for the first month of school. Thereafter, those who are fully vaccinated, with 14 days completed after the second vaccine dose, can take a nasal PCR test every month. Those who are not yet vaccinated, or who have a medical vaccination exemption, have to take a nasal PCR test every week.

Students enrolled in private schools in Dubai, and students aged less than 12 years in Sharjah’s private schools, do not need to undergo the tests at the moment.

In addition, remote learning is provided as an option for children less than 12 in many schools, for students of determination, and for many university students. These students would therefore not have to undergo regular PCR tests.

Taking a nasal PCR easier

Although the nasal swab test is available for children of all ages, it can feel slightly intrusive for younger takers. Some basic measures could help make the process easier.

  • Talk to your children about why the test is necessary, especially if they have not provided a nasal swab in the past. Highlight positive aspects, especially how the regular testing keeps schools safe so that they can continue to attend classes and meet their friends in person.
  • Advise them on how to position themselves comfortably during a test. Most people find a slight head tilt to be more comfortable.
  • Tell them to close their eyes, and take deep belly breaths during the test. This can help dispel the fear of the swab.
  • Offer praise for every successful test they take, and communicate with the school if your child is facing real difficulty.
  • If possible, try to take them yourself for some of the first nasal swab tests they undergo to make the process familiar. Many children in the UAE are already used to the swabs by now, but this can help if your child still has anxiety, or has not undertaken a nasal swab before.

What to do before a saliva test

For children less than 12 years, saliva tests are an option. So be sure to ask your child’s school about this before a scheduled PCR.

Dr Sally Mahmoud, lab director and clinical pathologist at Biogenix Labs – the Abu Dhabi-based facility that was the first to offer saliva PCRs to children in the UAE – explained what is required for saliva-based testing.

  • Children must not eat or drink 45 minutes before the test.
  • Ask your child to listen to the testing professional and pool saliva in the mouth.
  • Tell your child that they may need to spit multiple times so that two millilitres of saliva can be collected.
  • Practise spitting into a container at home, as young children may need some help initially.

Free testing

In case you would like to take your child for the PCR testing yourself, all private and public testing centres in Abu Dhabi offer free testing for schoolchildren, with a number of facilities – including drive-through centres – also providing a saliva testing option.

The Ministry of Health and Prevention has also designated centres in other emirates where students can take the tests.

In addition, facilities in Dubai under the Dubai Health Authority are offering free PCR tests to Emirati students enrolled in public schools.