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Tens of thousands of children across Ottawa are returning to school in September in the midst of a global pandemic.

School boards have released and revised back to school plans and are promising to keep students and staff as safe as possible. Still, Ottawa's medical officer of health says to expect cases of COVID-19 this fall.

Will schools be forced to close? Who has to isolate? What if you get sick?

Ottawa Public Health outlined its plans earlier in August, and the Ontario government later solidified guidelines for a variety of scenarios.

First things first: daily screening

One of the main measures public health is using to keep COVID-19 cases out of schools is screening children for symptoms daily.

Here is a link to Ottawa Public Health's daily screening tool for students.

The main symptoms to watch out for are:

  • Fever (feeling hot to touch, a temperature of 37.8 degrees or higher);
  • Chills
  • A new or worsening cough
  • A barking or croupy cough
  • A runny nose not related to another known issue like allergies
  • A sore throat not related to another known issue like allergies
  • Shortness of breath
  • Trouble swallowing
  • A change in the ability to taste or smell
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea or stomach pain
  • An unusual headache
  • Unexplained fatigue
  • Unusually sore muscles
  • Pink eye
  • Sluggishness
  • An unusual lack of appetite

A yes to any of these means OPH recommends your child goes to a COVID-19 assessment centre to be tested as soon as possible.

While awaiting test results, a child should stay home from school.

If the test is negative, they can return to class 24 hours after their symptoms improve.

What if my child gets sick at school?

  • The teacher should inform the principal and monitor themselves and the other students.
  • The principal should isolate the child and inform you right away to pick your child up from school.
  • While isolated, a staff member will care for your child while maintaining as much distance as possible and wearing a mask and eye protection.
  • Your child will have a mask on during this time, if tolerable.
  • You should follow the advice of your health care provider and Ottawa Public Health.
  • If your child is tested for COVID-19, they must remain at home until results come in; if negative, they can return to school 24 hours after symptoms improve.
  • The teacher should arrange for at-home learning, if your child is well enough.

Who will be told?

  • The school principal is tasked with informing staff about the situation, as necessary, while respecting the privacy of your child and your family.

What if my child tests positive for COVID-19?

  • Your child must isolate for 14 days. Retesting is not recommended and will not change or shorten this requirement.
  • Your child does not need a doctor's note or a negative test result in order to return to school. They can return after completing 14 days of isolation as long as they have no fever and their symptoms have been improving for at least 72 hours.
  • The teacher should arrange for at-home learning, if your child is well enough.

Who will be told?

  • The principal will notify the school community, as appropriate, while respecting privacy.
  • An Ottawa Public Health nurse will follow up with families of close contacts.
  • Schools and school boards have been asked to create a COVID-19 advisory web page that will notify families of positive cases in their child's school. No personal information will be shared.

What if another child gets ill at school?

  • Children who develop symptoms at school will be isolated and cared for in a designated part of the school while waiting to be picked up and taken home.
  • If your child tells you that one of their classmates went home sick, it's recommended you monitor your child for symptoms, but they do not need to stay home.

What if another child tests positive for COVID-19?

  • The principal will notify the school community, as appropriate, while respecting privacy.
  • If your child is considered a close contact, an Ottawa Public Health case manager will contact you directly with information on how and when to be tested for COVID-19 and further actions to take.
  • If someone at your child's school tests positive and your child is not a close contact, you do not need to keep them home or have them tested for COVID-19.
  • Schools and school boards have been asked to create a COVID-19 advisory web page that will notify families of positive cases in their child's school. No personal information is to be shared.

What if I get COVID-19?

  • You are not required to inform your child's school if you test positive for COVID-19, but it is strongly recommended.
  • Your children should stay home from school and isolate for 14 days if you are positive for COVID-19.
  • If you are informed of your positive test result while your child is at school, you should inform the school so that they can co-ordinate pick up and/or isolation as required.
  • Your child's teacher should provide support for at home learning.
  • Depending on the circumstances of the case, the health unit would provide advice to your child's principal on steps to take, if necessary.
  • Testing requirements for the rest of your family are based on recommendations from the health unit and your doctor.

Who will be told?

  • If you inform the school of your positive test, the principal is expected to contact the school's superintendent to make them aware of the situation.
  • The superintendent should inform the school board's COVID-19 lead, who will continue to monitor the situation.

When will the school be required to close?

  • Under provincial guidelines, a COVID-19 outbreak in a school is defined as "two or more lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases in students and/or staff in a school with an epidemiological link, within a 14-day period, where at least one case could have reasonably acquired their infection in the school (including transportation and before or after school care)."
  • Whether an entire class cohort or the entire school needs to close is up to Ottawa Public Health.
  • OPH will reach out to parents of close contacts to let them know that an outbreak has been declared and help them with the next steps, including staying home, monitoring for symptoms and going for testing when appropriate.
  • An outbreak will be deemed over after 14 days pass since the last confirmed outbreak-associated positive test result and if there are no symptomatic people still waiting for test results. OPH will announce the end of an outbreak.
  • Outbreaks will be posted to the school board's COVID-19 advisory page and to Ottawa Public Health's COVID-19 dashboard
  • The outbreak does not need to be over before a school can reopen. Cohorts with no evidence of transmission may be gradually brought back.

Do's and Don'ts of COVID-19 in schools

DO:

  • Stay home if you're sick.
  • Tell someone right away if you don't feel well while at school.
  • Practice "no-touch" greetings with friends and teachers.
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue or your upper arm.
  • Bring your own water bottle and don't share it with others.
  • Keep one to two metres apart from people as much as you can.
  • Wear a mask, if you're able.
  • Reach out for help if you need. It's okay to not be okay.

DON'T:

  • Share personal belongings and food.
  • Share your mask.
  • Touch your face.