Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health says he fully expects that the province will see cases of COVID-19 in schools.

"It doesn't mean that the plan has failed, it doesn't mean there is a crisis," Dr. Robert Strang said during a news conference Wednesday afternoon. "We have plans in place to manage it appropriately."

How Nova Scotia public health staff and school staff will manage any cases will depend on the "level of exposure and the risk to students, staff or essential visitors," the province says in a news release.

The province outlined three different risk levels: high, moderate, and low.

The Nova Scotia Department of Health and Wellness defines those three levels this way:

  • An individual is at high risk if they are a close contact. A close contact is someone who was in close and prolonged contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19 up to 48 hours before symptoms presented. This could include everyone in the class.
  • An individual is at moderate risk if there has not been prolonged contact and they have maintained two metres or six feet from the confirmed case. This would include all students and staff in a shared space who were able to physically distance.
  • An individual is at low risk if they have had limited or casual contact with a confirmed case. This could be incidental contact such as walking past or near the individual in a hallway or other common area.

Strang said COVID-19 is not something that can be passed on through brief or fleeting contact; it's passed on through "close contact," he said.

The province says it plans to take a "cautious approach" when responding to COVID-19 cases in schools.

Here are what it calls the "key elements" of their response plan:

  • Public health will immediately launch an investigation to determine and arrange testing for all close contacts. Close contacts may include everyone in the class, school bus, or before-and-after-school program.
  • All close contacts will be required to self-isolate at home while waiting for results. If they are negative, they need to complete their 14-day isolation; if they are positive, they have to isolate as a case and follow public health guidelines.
  • All families at the school will be notified about the exposure and measures being taken.
  • School closures due to COVID-19 will occur on the advice and recommendation of public health and only if there is deemed to be a risk to all staff and students.
  • Students required to self-isolate will be supported to continue their learning until they can return to school.

If a student becomes ill while at school, they will be "monitored (and) isolated away from other students" until a family member can come pick them up.

"I certainly hope we won't have to close a school but we need to be realistic and we're certainly prepared to do that if that's what is required based on the public health assessment and discussion with the school administration," Strang said.

As has been the case since the pandemic started, closely monitoring health and symptoms is key to preventing the spread of the disease.

"Families should monitor the health of their children daily and keep them home if they feel ill," said Strang. "There is no one-size-fits-all approach to addressing a COVID-19 exposure, but we are ready to respond quickly if or when it happens in a school."

Education Minister Zach Churchill said the attendance policy will be suspended and no student will be penalized for not attending school. He added that the province will also make laptops available to any student who needs one to help them learn at home.

"We will switch to a blended model if necessary," Churchill said.

A blended model is when half of the students stay home and learn online every other day. It helps to reduce the number of people that have to physically attend school.

There will be more frequent and thorough cleaning of schools, Churchill said. As for shared items, Strang says he is more concerned that students have clean hands when touching a book that is shared, than in making sure that the book is sanitized before another student uses it.

When asked about some private schools installing PlexiGlas and machines to perform temperature checks, Strang said those measures --  while not bad -- are not deemed necessary by public health.

"Just because some institution is doing it doesn't mean it's a gap in what we are doing," Strang said.

Teachers don't officially go back to work until Thursday, but some are already working to get their classrooms in order.

The Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE) says all schools and portables in the municipality will have their ventilation systems checked before classes start next week and is reassuring parents that schools will be ready to welcome students back.

"We are going to be in this together and we are going to find a way to make this work for everyone," said HRCE spokesman Doug Hadley.