Ottawa

OPH to keep a close eye on back-to-school plans

As elementary and secondary students get set to head back to the classroom next month, public health officials in Ottawa are helping prepare their parents and teachers for what will be a very different kind of school year.

Public health officials will be out in force to prepare kids, parents and teachers for September

Ottawa Public Health says parents will need to screen their kids daily for possible COVID-19 symptoms before sending them off to school. (Gundam_Ai/Shutterstock)

As elementary and secondary students get set to head back to the classroom next month, public health officials in Ottawa are helping prepare their parents and teachers for what will be a very different kind of school year.

Ottawa Public Health (OPH) is running through several different scenarios, including how to properly screen school staff for COVID-19, how to handle a potential outbreak at a school, and what parents need to know if their child is feeling unwell.

"What if it's just a headache in a child, or what if it's a stomach ache? What does that mean?" said Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa's medical officer of health, during a conference call with reporters Monday afternoon.

"We are wanting to be very cautious as we go forward that any mild symptom that previously may not have been a concern. We want to think twice about that."

Vera Etches, medical officer of health, says Ottawa Public Health is preparing to test and track any potential cases of COVID-19 in schools, though lower levels of community infection would lessen the risk. 1:09

Parents in Ontario have until Friday to decide whether they're sending their kids to school in September, or keeping them home to learn remotely.

Etches acknowledged that decision can be a difficult one for families, depending on their circumstances, their child's health and developmental needs, and the health of other family members.

OPH is expecting to see isolated cases of COVID-19 crop up in schools, but public health officials believe those will originate outside the school community — from a parent, for example — rather than within the classrooms or corridors.

Vera Etches, Ottawa’s medical officer of health, says children most often get COVID-19 from adult family members, something that is made more likely if adults have more close contacts. 1:09

"The infections that children get are typically from their close contacts, and their closest contacts are their household contacts," Etches said. "If you move that to put two families together, three families together, and that close contact grows, that increases the risk of infection in a child or youth, and then that can be introduced into the school."

Public health officials will be looking more closely at absenteeism reports to determine whether numerous students from the same classroom are home sick, and whether those children have been tested for COVID-19.

Dr. Vera Etches said public health officials anticipate any COVID-19 cases that crop up this fall will have originated outside the school rather than from a classmate. (Skype)

Unlike other institutions where an outbreak is declared if there's a single positive COVID-19 case, schools have to meet a different bar. Etches said a school will only be considered to have an outbreak if there are two cases, one of which was contracted at school.

For months, Ottawans have been told to keep two metres apart from others outside their social bubbles, but school boards have admitted that likely won't be possible in the classroom. Etches said one metre should suffice, along with masks, handwashing and screening.

With provincial funding, OPH also plans to add another 36 nurses to its roster of school health teams.

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