Outbreak protocols will be implemented in any school that reports two or more confirmed cases of COVID-19, the Alberta government says in a new guidance document.
The document, released Thursday, outlines rules for handling potential outbreaks in K-12 classrooms when students return in September.
If two or more cases are confirmed within a given school, a letter will be sent to guardians and contact tracing will begin.
The two cases must be confirmed within a 14-day period or be considered epidemiologically linked in order to trigger an outbreak response.
Five or more confirmed cases will mean the outbreak is publicly reported on the Alberta Health outbreak website.
Educators will work with provincial health officials to decide whether the school should close. Public health officials will inform the school administration when the outbreak is declared over.
According to the guidance document, school officials will work closely with health officials to monitor for any signs of a possible outbreak. Even a single confirmed case will mean the school is placed on "alert status." With a single case, contact tracing will begin and a notification will be sent to parents.
Alberta Health Services, which receives positive results directly from its labs, will notify the school if there is a confirmed case. Parents and staff with general inquiries will be directed to call Health Link at 811 or the Alberta Health website.
"Any one confirmed case will result in an investigation by Alberta Health Services Public Health," reads the document.
"It is likely with a single case that exposure is limited to a single class or group. Closures of specific classes, cohorts or schools may occur dependent on the outcome of an investigation."
Students who develop symptoms while at school should be asked to wear a non-medical mask, placed in isolation and picked up immediately. Staff who fall ill while at work will also be asked to follow quarantine and self-isolation measures and leave the school as soon as possible.
Every surface or item touched by a symptomatic person will be disinfected or isolated for 72 hours to reduce the risk of spread.
Closures and 'clusters of illness'
Even if case numbers don't meet the threshold for outbreak protocols, if there is an absence rate of 10 per cent or more due to illness, or an unusual number of individuals with similar symptoms, health officials will investigate.
"The purpose of this is to continue to monitor for other clusters of illness that may not be COVID-19 related and alert AHS to potential outbreaks of other diseases," reads the document.
If a teacher or staff member contracts COVID-19, Alberta Health Services will work with the school community to identify close contacts and ensure that they follow the appropriate quarantine restrictions. The specific details of the case will determine who is considered to be a close contact.
Symptomatic individuals will be asked to stay home and isolate for 10 days or until their symptoms resolve. They will be asked to get tested as soon as possible.
Alberta Health Services Public Health will work with the school community to identify close contacts and ensure that they follow the appropriate quarantine restrictions. The specific details of the case will determine who is considered to be a close contact.
'A dizzying array of information'
The government has said students are to return to class as early as Sept. 1.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, said her children will be returning to school this fall but every parent will have to weigh what's right for their family.
"Each parent is uniquely positioned to make the best decision for their family and school authorities have worked to provide innovative options to support student learning, wherever that may be," Hinshaw said during Thursday's COVID-19 briefing.
She said it's important to look at the big picture and not dwell on one or two examples of successes or failures elsewhere in the world.
"There is a dizzying array of information available on schools and COVID-19 transmission in children," she said.
"It can feel hard to make sense of it all, especially when it sometimes seems to be contradictory."
Hinshaw said a broad look at the available evidence suggests kids are less likely to get seriously sick if infected and that childhood infections don't seem to drive community spread.
Evidence also shows that younger children are less likely to infect others than older ones, who seem to transmit the virus at the same rate as adults.
Successful school reopenings seem to be linked to how much transmission is happening in the wider community, outside of schools.
In Georgia, for instance, there have been outbreaks in schools, but Hinshaw noted the state also has a new daily case rate 12 times higher than Alberta's.
Teachers demand a delayed start
The Alberta Teachers' Association has called on the government to delay the start of the school year until after Sept. 7.
Association president Jason Schilling made the announcement Wednesday after meeting with Education Minister Adriana LaGrange to discuss concerns about the province's back-to-school plan.
Schilling said teachers, principals and other staff need more time to prepare for students.
He said there needs to be increased physical distancing through reduced class sizes, funding for better protective equipment, and better plans for screening and testing students and staff for COVID-19.
Alberta reported 103 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, compared to 89 new infections a day earlier.
As of Thursday there were 1,084 active cases in the province, more than half of them in the Edmonton zone.
Forty three people were in hospital, including 12 in intensive care. The province reported one more death, bringing the total to 228.