After a summer that saw COVID-19 take its toll largely on the elderly and frail in Canada's nursing homes, schools may well be the new focal point for the novel coronavirus as students head back to the classroom and the pandemic evolves into the colder months.
In Toronto, at Canada's largest school board, where tens of thousands of families have opted to send their children back to school, infections are likely to be all but inevitable.
And officials appear to be bracing for the impact.
On Wednesday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said his government will publicly report all cases of the virus in the province's schools — doing so as much as it shared case numbers in long-term care homes.
Exactly when that reporting will begin, Ford didn't specify, but while schools have only begin reopening this week, COVID-19 has already surfaced at one elementary school in Oakville, Ont.
So what happens when someone tests positive for COVID in a Toronto school?
First, Toronto Public Health (TPH) says it will notify parents of any positive cases in the school. For privacy reasons, the agency won't disclose the person's identity.
"It is important to remember that not all students are at-risk if there is a positive case in the school. The main concern is for close contacts of the person who has COVID-19," the public health agency's website says.
Next, TPH will follow up with the infected person to try to pinpoint where they may have come into contact with the virus as well as who they may have exposed to it.
"We will work with the school, to find out who they were in contact with at the school while they were contagious," the agency says.
Public health officials will also contact each person who had close contact with the individual.
Is it an outbreak?
The agency will declare an outbreak if there are two or more positive cases of the virus at a school within a 14-day period, with at least one infection traced back to the school environment.
That could include transportation to or from school or before or after school-care programs.
The agency can choose to declare an outbreak for a class, grade or entire school.
It's also possible a classroom or school will have to close because of COVID-19, but the agency says there is no set number of cases that would determine when that might happen.
Any students in the infected person's class cohort will likely be told to self-isolate at home for 14 days. That directive could change depending on what public-health workers learn through the course of investigating a case.
If that person contracted COVID-19 from outside the school and was not contagious while in the school setting, the class cohort won't be asked to self-isolate.
Other students in the school should also monitor for symptoms, but don't need to self-isolate if they have not been told to do so by TPH.
If your child is asked to self-isolate, he or she needs to stay home for 14 days, as well as avoid contact with others.
The agency's guidance on self-isolating includes keeping a two-metre distance when in a room with others in the home, frequent hand washing, covering coughs or sneezes and wearing a mask over the nose and mouth if you must leave home to be tested for COVID-19 or to see a health-care provider.
Monitoring for symptoms
Monitor your child for symptoms of COVID-19, including fever, cough, difficulty breathing, sore throat, runny nose, loss of taste or smell, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea.
Symptoms can vary depending on a person's age, or can be non-specific.
If symptoms develop or if TPH advises, get tested for COVID-19. TPH advises to call your health-care provider, Telehealth Ontario at 1-866-797-0000 or an assessment centre if your child needs to be tested.
Return to school
The public health agency will advise students who were asked to self-isolate when they can return to school.
In general, TPH says:
- If a student tests positive, they can return after 14 days and after there are no symptoms
- If a student tests negative, they can return in 24 hours after they have no symptoms
- If a student tested negative but was told to self-isolate, they will need to continue to isolate for a full 14 days
Still have questions?
Have your say. Share your concerns as students return to school amid COVID-19 here.