Ontario unveils detailed plan on dealing with COVID-19 outbreaks in schools
TORONTO -- Nearly two weeks before some classes are set to begin, the Ontario government has released their plans for how COVID-19 outbreaks will be managed and dealt with within schools.
The plans were released on Wednesday and include possible scenarios for what will happen if a student either shows symptoms or tests positive for COVID-19 and if a staff member, bus driver or parent contracts the disease.
“We're not taking any chances. Our kids belong in school. They belong in the classroom with the guidance of their dedicated teachers and the benefit of being around kids their own age,” Ontario Premier Doug Ford said at a news conference. “And we're prepared to do whatever it takes to protect them.”
This is what you need to know.
What happens if a student feels ill while at school?
According to documents provided by the ministry of education and ministry of health, schools do not need to report all instances of a child feeling unwell, as “these are frequent occurrences and typically students have non-specific symptoms.”
The decision about whether or not to contact parents or public health remains in the hands of the school’s principal.
“We want to be sensitive to the fact that children don't always get sick from COVID,” Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Williams said. “We want to be cognisant of what's going on in the community. If there's no COVID circulate in the community. That's not always your first go to diagnosis. If you have widespread influenza, you need to look at that.”
Speaking on background, provincial health and education officials said there is no criteria or checklist available to school staff in order to determine if a student should be sent home due to the lengthy list of possible symptoms.
If the principal believes the child is suffering from symptoms of the novel coronavirus, the student should be taken to a designated isolated area while their parents are contacted. Students and staff should wear the appropriate personal protective equipment.
The student will be sent home and told to contact their local physician. If a COVID-19 test is necessary, they will continue their learning remotely while they wait for the results, assuming they are well enough to do so.
The school’s superintendent will inform the board’s COVID-19 lead, who will monitor attendance and student absences.
The designated isolation area, as well as all other areas where the ill student attended, will be cleaned.
If a child does not have COVID-19 but is experiencing symptoms such as fever, cough or shortness of breath, they will be asked to stay home until 24 hours after they stop experiencing those symptoms.
Parents are expected to monitor their child for the common symptoms every morning, but officials said the challenge will be that some children may not experience any symptoms.
What happens if there is a positive case?
Schools will be notified by their local public health unit (PHU) if they have a positive COVID-19 cases.
Anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 within the school community, including students, staff and bus drivers, will be asked to remain in isolation for 14 days. They will not be allowed to return until they are cleared by either the local public health unit or their health-care provider.
It is not necessary to provide evidence of a negative test in order to return to the school.
The cohorts connected with a positive case within schools will be considered at high risk of exposure.
The government has said that in the case of a positive COVID-19 diagnosis in which the disease was acquired outside of school, the patient’s cohort will likely be sent home for self-isolation as well. This includes groups within classrooms, buses and before or after school programs.
“There may be some exceptions to these recommendations on a case-by-case basis as determined by the PHU,” the outbreak management document says.
“For example, if the case was known to have acquired their infection outside of the school and had very short or limited contact with the school while infectious, the PHU may decide on more limited dismissal.”
Anyone else who was in close contact with the case while they were considered infectious will also be asked to isolate.
If there is no known source for a patient or it is likely that they contracted the disease at school, that person’s cohort as well as anyone else identified as having high-risk exposure will be asked to self-isolate and get tested as soon as possible.
It is the responsibility of school staff to keep up-to-date and detailed records that could aid health officials with contact tracing. This includes attendance records, seating charts, contact information, and lists for classes transportation and childcare.
School boards have been asked to create an advisory board on their website in order to inform parents of any positive COVID-19 cases.
What happens if there is an outbreak?
According to the documents, an outbreak is being defined as two or more cases in either students or staff “with an epidemiological link, within a 14-day period.” At least one of the cases must have been transmitted within the school.
An outbreak will be declared by a PHU, not school staff.
In the case of an outbreak, schools will apply “outbreak measures” such as the use of signage, limiting extracurricular activities, and managing the movement of students and staff.
Boards can also consider closing down a school if there is evidence of “substantial widespread transmission,” such as if there are cases across numerous cohorts or if a number of cases have no known source outside the community.
It is then recommended that all student attendees be tested.
An outbreak does not need to be declared over for a school to reopen, officials said.
“Cohorts without evidence of transmission can be gradually brought back to school as additional information and test results become available,” the documents said. “Consideration should be given to implementing additional preventive measures and active surveillance as part of re-opening.”
An outbreak will be declared over after at least 14 days have passed with no evidence of ongoing transmission related to the school and if no further ill individuals associated with the exposed cohorts have tests pending.
The government has said that school boards should be prepared to make arrangements for students who will be continuing their learning online.
What happens if a parent or bus driver contracts COVID-19?
It is not mandatory for a parent or guardian who tests positive for COVID-19 to inform their child’s school. But officials say it is “strongly recommended.”
Officials said it would then be the responsibility of the PHU to inform the school after contact tracing was done.
Children of those living in the same household as a positive COVID-19 case will also be asked to stay home from school to self-isolate for 14 days.
However, officials say that other parents will not be notified on the advisory boards if a child is removed from class due to potential family exposure.
If a bus driver is feeling unwell, they should contact their employer immediately and then consult a local physician. Potentially impacted schools will be notified.
Students will be monitored for symptoms.
Officials also encouraged students and staff to download the COVID-19 Alert app to ensure for better contact tracing and notification of potential exposure.
High school students are still prohibited from using their cellphones while in class, although they can have them in their bags.