What happens if there's an outbreak at school?

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Students in Ontario will be returning to school in some form in mid-September. Some students may be learning entirely online while others will be physically attending classes. If there is an outbreak at a school, or a student tests positive for COVID-19, the Ontario government has provided recommended actions.

The local public health unit (PHU) is responsible for determining if an outbreak exists, declaring an outbreak, and providing direction on outbreak control measures to be implemented. The PHU will also assist in determining which cohort(s) may be sent home or if a partial or full school closure is required based on the scope of the outbreak. 

What is considered an outbreak?

If there are 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).

The local public health unit will work with the school to determine epidemiological links (e.g., cases in the same class, cases that are part of the same before/after school care cohort, cases that have assigned bus seats in close proximity to each other). The PHU will determine which cohorts are high risk contacts requiring isolation.

If a school is closed, when can it reopen?

The outbreak does not necessarily need to be over to re-open the school. Cohorts without evidence of transmission can be gradually brought back to school as additional information and test results become available.

Outbreak declared over

An outbreak will be declared over by the PHU. This may be based on:

  • at least 14 days from the last outbreak associated case (including in a student, staff, essential visitor, or anyone else in the school during the outbreak)
  • no further symptomatic individuals with tests pending

If a student tests postitive

  • Any individual who tests positive for COVID-19 should not attend school until they are cleared by their local public health unit (PHU) or health care provider

  • Any individuals who test positive must remain in isolation for 14 days

  • The local PHU will notify the school of a positive COVID-19 diagnosis

  • Where the local PHU determines there was a transmission risk to others in the school, students and staff will be assessed to determine if they were at high risk of exposure (requiring isolation) or if they were at low risk of exposure (can self-monitor for symptoms and return to school)

  • All students and staff determined to be at high risk of exposure will be directed to isolate and recommended to be tested (voluntary testing) within their isolation period. Negative test results do not change the requirement for isolation nor do they shorten the isolation period for close contacts

Recommended action by teacher:

  • ensure continuation of learning for the student
  • continue to monitor students and themselves for symptoms

Recommended action by principal:

  • communicate with school community as appropriate
  • ensure student and sibling(s) portfolio information (that is, class list, seating charts, transportation details etc.) is up-to-date and share this information to PHU upon request
  • ensure/coordinate environmental cleaning and/or disinfection of the space and items used by the individual(s)
  • monitor school population for new and additional illnesses and symptoms

Recommended action by parent and student:

  • engage in continuation of learning if able
  • communicate regularly with the school to inform daily routines
  • follow advice by health provider and/or PHU on isolation protocol

Returning to school

While an individual suspected to have COVID-19 is waiting for test results they must be in isolation and cannot attend school in person. The individual can attend school virtually if they feel well enough to participate. Individuals who have had a COVID-19 test because of symptoms, but who test negative should not return to school until at least 24 hours after their symptoms have resolved.

Individuals who have traveled out of the country should isolate for 14 days.

For an ill individual who has a known alternative diagnosis provided by a health care provider, return to school can occur when symptoms are resolved for at least 24 hours.

If a student becomes ill during school

Recommended action by teacher:

  • be aware of symptom descriptions and alert the principal if a student is ill
  • continue to monitor students and themselves for symptoms

Recommended action by principal:

  • coordinate immediate student pick-up and designate an area to isolate the student until parent/guardian arrival
  • advise student and any staff attending to them to use provided PPE kit
  • ensure/coordinate environmental cleaning and/or disinfection of the space and items used by the individual(s)

Recommended action by parent and student:

  • follow guidance of health care provider
  • if a student is tested for COVID-19, follow the guidance of health care provider and related direction for isolation and returning to school

(Source: Government of Ontario)