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Symptoms, confirmed cases and outbreaks: How Alberta plans to handle COVID-19 in schools

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With about two weeks left until many of Alberta’s students head back to school in the middle of a pandemic, many parents, teachers and school administrative staff are wondering what will happen if the novel coronavirus turns up in classrooms.

The province announced last month that in-school classes would be resuming this fall under Scenario 1 of the re-entry plan: near-normal daily operations with added health measures.

Read more: Coronavirus: Alberta’s top doctor sending her children to school, continues to defend re-entry plan

On Thursday, chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said Albertans “can reasonably expect some infections at schools.”

The government released new guidelines for scenarios: from students developing symptoms while in class to the possibility that an outbreak could force the closure of a school.

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Symptomatic students, staff

While most students will be wearing masks if possible and everyone is being encouraged to practice proper hygiene and physical distance where possible, the reality is, children are likely to have symptoms of COVID-19 whether they’ve come in contact with the virus or not — as many of them are similar to the common cold or flu.

If students develop symptoms at home, parents are being told to keep them home and contact 811 or use the online COVID-19 self-assessment tool for guidance on next steps and whether they should be tested.

Read more: What are coronavirus symptoms? In mild cases, just like the common cold

Students who develop symptoms while at school will be asked to wear a face mask if they can, and they’ll be immediately isolated in a separate room. If a separate room can’t be found, the student will be kept at least two metres from others.

The school will also call the student’s parents and ask them to come pick up their child immediately.

Anything the student touched will be isolated and disinfected and cleaned as soon as they’re picked up, and anything that can’t be cleaned or disinfected should be sealed in a container for at least 72 hours.

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If a teacher or other staff member is symptomatic while at home, they’re being told not to come to work and to contact 811 or use the self-assessment tool to determine whether they should be tested.

If they’re at work and develop any of the symptoms, they’re asked to wear a mask if they can and go home as soon as possible.

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The items the staff member touched will go through the same cleaning and disinfecting or isolation process that’s in place for students with symptoms.

Confirmed cases

“Alert” status

Once one case of COVID-19 is confirmed in a school, whether symptomatic or not, it will be placed on an “Alert” status and Alberta Health Services, as well as parents and guardians and the school board or school authority, will be notified.

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“Schools should have flexibility for student and staff personal circumstances, such as flexible attendance and sick leave for students and staff who are symptomatic and in isolation or who may have been identified as close contacts of a confirmed case of COVID-19 and are in quarantine,” the government said.

Read more: Rallies across Alberta call for more school funding ahead of fall return

If needed, health officials will do an on-site assessment, and officials will work with the school to get information needed for contact tracing.

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“Outbreak” status

If two or more positive cases are confirmed at a school within 14 days, or two or more that are epidemiological linked, an official outbreak will be declared.

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From there, the school will work with AHS and the regional medical officer of health, and health officials will begin the process of contact tracing.

A letter will also be sent to parents and guardians letting them know about the outbreak, and reminding them to monitor for symptoms in their household and what’s being done to mitigate any risk to students.

Read more: Article meant to ease parents back to school concerns raises eyebrows

The outbreak management protocols will be up to the zone medical officer of health, the government said.

“The school administration is to advise AHS Public Health of any relevant/related issues or difficulties in following guidance recommendations,” the document reads.

An assessment of the school may also be done if health officials believe it’s needed.

Public reporting phase

A school outbreak will be added to the Alberta Health outbreak site once there are five or more confirmed cases.

The school involved and health authorities will follow the same protocols for notification, contact tracing and public health recommendations that are outlined in the “outbreak” guidelines.

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“The zone MOH may make recommendations or provide orders to effectively control the outbreak. These recommendations will be based on the number of active COVID-19 cases in the school and the risk of ongoing transmission, as determined by the public health investigation,” the government said.

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What happens when an outbreak is over?

AHS public health officials will notify the school once an outbreak has been declared over an the school will work with AHS to resume any instruction activities that might have been interrupted because of the outbreak.

The standard for declaring an outbreak over is 28 days with no new cases, according to public health guidelines.

Read more: Coronavirus: How Alberta Health defines a ‘recovered’ case

Parents and guardians, as well as the school board, will be notified the outbreak is over, and the school’s response to the outbreak will be reviewed to identify any issues or point out any things that worked and can be applied in potential future outbreaks.

The government doesn’t require proof of a negative COVID-19 test result for students or staff to return to schools.

Will schools close when cases are confirmed?

Any time a confirmed cases is identified at a school, an investigation will immediately be launched, but even in the case of an outbreak, schools might not necessarily close.

“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,” the government said.

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Read more: Dozens protest Alberta’s back-to-school plan outside education minister’s Red Deer office

The response to an outbreak will be determined by the regional medical officer of health, in conjunction with the government and local officials, including whether the school should be closed or if alternate teaching methods are needed.

Who needs to quarantine when there are symptoms, positive cases?

If someone has COVID-19 symptoms at a school, “everyone in the class does not need to be quarantined,” the government guidelines say.

Anyone with symptoms is required to stay at home and isolate for 10 days, and be tested as soon as possible.

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If a school staff member contracts the illness, public health officials will work with the school to identify any close contacts to make sure they follow proper quarantine restrictions.

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“The specific details of the case will determine who is considered to be a close contact,” the guidelines say.