Here's what happens when there are COVID-19 cases in Ontario schools

With two million students, teachers and other education workers returning to Ontario schools this month, cases of COVID-19 will almost undoubtedly be confirmed. What happens then?

Whether student or staff tests positive, local public health unit and school board play roles

Ontario's Ministry of Health has has laid out detailed guidelines on what schools are to do when staff or students test positive for COVID-19. The decision to declare an outbreak or recommend closure of a school rests with the local public health unit. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

With two million students, teachers and other education workers heading back to class this month, confirmed cases of COVID-19 will almost undoubtedly appear in the province's school system. 

The Ministry of Health has laid out detailed guidelines on what's to happen when staff or students show symptoms of COVID-19, or test positive for the coronavirus. School administration, the school board and the local public health unit all play roles in a response that can — if there's evidence that infections are spreading — include shutting down schools. 

Here's the plan in a nutshell. 

When someone shows symptoms at school 

Parents are being told not to send their kids to school if they are showing symptoms of COVID-19. If a student starts showing symptoms during the school day, the principal is to contact the parents immediately to arrange a pickup as soon as possible. In the meantime, the child is to isolate, and staff caring for the child are to wear full personal protective equipment. 

The school principal must ensure the space and materials used by the ill student are cleaned, that staff are informed of the situation, and the rest of the school population is monitored for symptoms.

Students, teachers or education workers who test positive are to self-isolate for at least 14 days and are not to return to school until cleared by their local public health unit or health-care provider. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press)

The parents of the ill student will be encouraged to get their child tested for COVID-19. The student must not return to school while waiting for test results, but can attend virtually if they feel well enough. Even if the test result is negative, the child is still not to return to school until 24 hours after their symptoms have resolved.

While the province doesn't want schools to bombard public health units with a report on every student with the sniffles, the system will be keeping a close eye on rates of absenteeism. School attendance is to be reported daily to the local public health unit and the Ministry of Education.

When someone tests positive 

If a case of COVID-19 is confirmed among a student or a staff member, the provincial guidelines say the public health unit handling the case will notify the school. The guidelines also say the school is responsible for reporting any confirmed or probable case to the local public health unit and to the Ministry of Education. 

Information is to be posted publicly on the school board's and school's website, but the individual is not to be named. 

"Parents, students and staff have an understandable interest in knowing when a COVID-19 positive case has been identified in their school," the provincial guidelines say.

Those who had close contact with the confirmed case while infectious — whether by being in the same class, on the same school bus or attending the same after-school care program — are to be informed directly.

If a case is confirmed, public health units are to contact the parents of students who were potentially exposed, whether on a bus or in the classroom. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Contacts of a confirmed case

The public health unit determines the risk that various students and staff were exposed to the virus according to their level of contact with the person who tested positive. To allow for tracing, the school is required to provide public health with such information as class lists, attendance records and parental contact details.   

Anyone in the same classroom cohort as the confirmed case will generally be considered to be at high risk of transmission. Parents of those children are to be notified immediately.

Everyone considered at high risk of exposure will be directed to self-isolate, and will be encouraged to get tested for COVID-19. However, even if they test negative, they are still to self-isolate for 14 days from the last contact with the confirmed case. 

Those considered to be at low risk of exposure are to self-monitor for symptoms and can return to school.

If a student or staff member clearly contracted COVID-19 from someone outside the school and was not at the school while contagious, their cohort will not be required to self-isolate.

WATCH: CBC's Mike Crawley interviews experts on what will happen if there is an outbreak at a school

Here’s what will happen if there are COVID-19 cases in Ontario schools

3 years ago
Duration 2:16
It's a question on the mind of many parents in this province as the start of the school year approaches: what will happen if there are cases of COVID-19 at my child's school? Queen's Park reporter Mike Crawley found out.

When multiple students or staff test positive 

If there are two or more lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases among students and/or staff in a school within a 14-day period, public health must declare an outbreak, provided that the cases appear to have "an epidemiological link," such as being in the same class, the same after-school care group, or the same school bus.

The public health unit decides which cohorts in the school should self-isolate by being most at risk from the outbreak.

"If public health advises that a class, cohort or a school should be closed for a period of time, parents, students and staff will be notified immediately," say the provincial guidelines. 

The outbreak can be declared over once 14 days have passed with no evidence of school-related transmission, so long as no one who was exposed to the initial outbreak is still awaiting test results. 

If there are two or more confirmed cases among students and/or staff in a school within a 14-day period, public health must declare an outbreak. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

When will school closures happen?

As a result of an outbreak, a school may be closed, but not necessarily. There is no firm threshold for a number of cases to trigger a closure. It's a judgment call, and public health officials make that judgment.

The provincial guidance says closing a school "should be considered if there is evidence of potential widespread transmission." That could include any number of cases among students and staff "with no known source of acquisition outside of the school." 

If a school is closed, public health may recommend testing for everyone from the school. 

The school may be reopened even if the outbreak is not fully over. "Cohorts without evidence of transmission can be gradually brought back to school as additional information and test results become available," say the province's guidelines.

When can you return to school after testing positive?

Anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 is to remain in isolation for at least 14 days. A student or staff member should not return to school until they are cleared by their local public health unit or health-care provider, the province says. 

What if a parent or sibling tests positive?

Parents who contract COVID-19 are encouraged to tell their children's school, but it's not a legal requirement. However, the province advises that everyone living in the household with a person who tests positive should self-isolate, and the children should not come to school, for 14 days. 

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