As part of Ontario’s plan for students to safely return to the classroom in September, the government has released the Operational Guidance: COVID-19 Management in Schools document. This guide was developed in consultation with public health experts, including Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, and aims to help schools identify and isolate COVID-19 cases, reduce the spread of COVID-19 in schools, and prevent and minimize outbreaks.
In addition, Dr. Dirk Huyer, who was recently the Executive Lead for the COVID-19 Testing Approach at the Command Table and is the Chief Coroner for Ontario, will serve as Coordinator, Provincial Outbreak Response. Dr. Huyer will lead the province’s efforts to prevent and minimize COVID-19 outbreaks in a number of sectors, including the education, child care, agriculture and health care sectors.
Details were provided on Wednesday, August 27 by Premier Doug Ford, Stephen Lecce, Minister of Education, Dr. David Williams, Chief Medical Officer of Health, and Dr. Dirk Huyer.
“Just as many schools have fire safety and emergency response plans, we have been working hand in hand with the medical experts to develop a plan that will allow schools to quickly and effectively find, isolate and contain a COVID-19 case or outbreak,” said Ford. “With medical experts helping to develop and support our plan, parents, teachers and educators can be confident every measure has been taken to put the health and safety of students and staff first.”
The guidance document will help school boards and school authorities consistently implement prevention measures, maintain accurate records of staff, students and visitors, work with their local public health units, and take appropriate action when staff, students, or visitors become ill during the school day. It includes detailed instructions for a variety of different scenarios. It also outlines recommendations for what parents should do to support their children.
“Ontario’s COVID-19 management plan for schools was developed by medical leaders, with one aim: to maximize safety and minimize the risk to your children,” said Lecce. “We have the resources in place ― from nursing to testing and enhanced screening and cleaning ― to help prevent the spread, coupled with a comprehensive plan to respond to any challenge immediately and decisively, under the leadership of Dr. Huyer.”
Key elements of the guidance document explain:
- The role of school boards and schools: keeping communities informed by creating a COVID-19 advisory section on both the board and school’s websites;
- The role of local public health units: leading case and contact tracing activities, declaring outbreaks and directing closure of classrooms or schools where necessary;
- The critical role of parents: screening their children every day before they go to school and keeping them home if they are ill;
- Appropriate steps to take when a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19, including notifying the school community while respecting individual privacy; and
- Protocols to trigger various levels of public health responses or infection control measures. One case will trigger a public health response, two or more linked cases will trigger the declaration of an outbreak.
“The Government of Ontario needs to be prepared to identify and mitigate outbreaks, especially in settings such as schools and child care centres,” said Dr. Huyer. “Through enhanced planning across government, we will be positioned to intervene quickly to prevent outbreaks and the spread of COVID-19.”
The Chief Medical Officer of Health is also issuing an additional public health guidance, COVID-19 Guidance: School Outbreak Management, for medical officers of health and public health units to support their efforts in investigating cases, outbreaks, and suspected outbreaks in school settings.
“As schools welcome students and teachers back in the coming weeks, it’s important for everyone to be informed and understand their role in keeping each other safe,” said Dr. Williams. “This guidance document provides a thorough management plan for school boards, schools, parents and community partners like public health units to respond to COVID-19.”
The new guidance includes the following:
- A protocol has been developed to deal with students who become ill while they are at school, including isolation, and providing personal protective equipment to the ill student and staff attending to them;
- A clear communications process will be followed, so parents will know if a student or staff member in a school tests positive for COVID-19;
- School boards will be required to work closely with public health units to communicate updates in real time and determine whether a class or school must be closed;
- Led by Ontario Public Health, the government intends to surveillance test asymptomatic secondary students in schools.
On top of hiring more public health nurses for schools, education staff will have completed rigourous professional development on health and safety.
As the COVID-19 outbreak continues to evolve, the guidance document will help support parents and schools as they continue to work together during these unprecedented times. The Minister of Education has issued a letter to parents to outline the shared responsibility to keep students safe and the key elements of the outbreak management protocol.