Above, Chesterville Public School, with a large stop sign on the front door alongside COVID-19 notices.
EASTERN ONTARIO — Students last week began a “staggered” return to their classrooms as local health units sought to assure an anxious public they are working with local boards and schools to manage any cases of COVID-19 that may arise.
Both the Eastern Ontario Health Unit (EOHU) and the Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District Health say they’ve been working with area school boards to implement Ministry of Education Guidelines to minimize transmission of the virus. The effort includes mobilization of public health nurses to manage contact tracing, case management and follow-up with schools and families. The EOHU alone has hired 12 nurses to take that on that task, after receiving provincial funding for that purpose.
Schools also have heightened infection control procedures that would be activated in the event of a case of COVID-19, the health units say.
“Our priority is to make the school year as safe as possible for everyone,” says Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, Medical Officer of Health for the EOHU. “With the return to in-person classes, it’s possible that we may see some cases of COVID-19 at our local schools. However, parents should be assured that plans are in place to quickly identify cases and their contacts, along with infection prevention measures that will help protect students and minimize spread of the virus in schools.”
The Upper Canada District School Board (UCDSB) is still in the middle of returning students back to their physical classrooms. A first group of elementary students (between Kindergarten and Grade 8) started on Friday, to be joined daily by more groups (based on an alphabetical surname) daily through Sept. 15. All high schoolers will have also returned by that date as well, with Grade 9 first out of the gate this past Friday. The Catholic District School Board started the return on Sept. 8, with only virtual learners left to log in tomorrow (Monday).
Students have been out of physical classrooms since the pandemic prompted the provincial government to declare the still-ongoing state of emergency on March 13. The UCDSB estimates that 80 percent of its student population is coming back for in-classroom instruction, with the rest opting to stick with the online education that suddenly became the norm in March.
In the event of a confirmed case of COVID-19 at a school, public health will immediately begin to work with the school to investigate any possible exposures and to trace and isolate contacts of the individual, according to the involved health units. Families will be notified about the case as soon as possible and provided with information and instructions. Parents of children who may have been exposed to the case will be contacted directly by public health and given specific directives. The status of cases and outbreaks will also be posted on the websites of school boards and their respective health units, as well as schools that have a website.
Below: Should a child with the sniffles be tested for COVID-19? Dr. Roumeliotis responds to NVN’s question on the subject last week.
The school will also activate infection control procedures including cleaning and disinfection of the classroom and any other affected areas of the school. If there’s an outbreak at the school, public health will determine through its investigation whether class cancellations or school closure is necessary.
Dr. Roumeliotis acknowledges that many families are anxious about the school reopening, and that keeping parents informed is a key part of the reopening strategy. “We understand that timely and transparent communication is important both for helping to alleviate worry, and for keeping our students as healthy as possible.” He adds that while every effort will be made to keep the school community informed, there is also an obligation to protect the privacy of any individuals who are confirmed to have COVID-19. He asks that families avoid speculating or sharing rumours about possible cases, especially online. “It’s important to remember that children’s privacy needs to be respected. Our kids deserve kindness and compassion, not to be stigmatized.”
Dr. Roumeliotis also points out that with the return to school, there will be an inevitable return to the spread of common infections such as colds and flu that occur every school year. Many of these infections include respiratory symptoms that can be similar to those of COVID-19. “We’re urging everyone to remain vigilant for possible COVID-19 symptoms, and to stay home if they are ill or experiencing symptoms,” he says. “However, we are also cautioning against jumping to conclusions that all respiratory symptoms or absences from school are related to COVID-19, since in many cases symptoms may be due to other causes.”
Public health and school boards are asking parents to use an anonymous online screening tool (also available in printable version) each day to determine whether or not their children have symptoms or should attend school. The tool also provides direction about what to do if anyone is experiencing symptoms. Teachers, school staff and any other individuals entering the school will also be asked to self-screen using the COVID-19 self-assessment tool, and to remain at home if they have any symptoms.