Supporting Schools During COVID-19 - Update
As the reopening of schools within our region continues, Ottawa Public Health (OPH) continues to collaborate with local school boards and organizations to implement provincial standards and guidance. Alongside our school board partners, OPH is addressing ongoing questions and concerns of families, school staff and students regarding COVID-19, ensuring we provide the most current information possible.
Residents of Ottawa must continue to do their part to keep transmission in the community low to help stop COVID-19 from entering schools in the first place.
OPH continues to monitor and assess local epidemiology related to the burden of people diagnosed with COVID-19, transmission risks in the local community, and absenteeism in schools. Decisions will be made based on the most recent data available at the time.
COVID-19 School Support Team (CSST)
OPH has established a COVID-19 School Support Team (CSST) consisting of experienced staff and 45 additional public health nurses (PHN) to be trained on the key areas of focus to support schools. The PHNs are working with schools both virtually and regularly in the school setting to help address questions from the school community. PHNs are providing schools with a checklist to ensure their plans and practices are implemented in such a way to meet our expectations of infection prevention and control. As OPH liaisons, our nurses will be available to the principals and will be present regularly in the schools. PHNs will also work to support Ottawa’s private schools and Ottawa’s 4 largest post-secondary institutions (University of Ottawa, Carleton University, Algonquin College, La Cite Collegiale).
Neighbourhood Cluster Response Team (NCRT)
OPH has also established a Neighbourhood Cluster Response Team (NCRT) who, working with OPH’s epidemiology team, will identify neighbourhoods with clusters of people diagnosed with COVID-19 and engage in rapid, as well as sustained response to neighbourhood and community clusters. The team will investigate and complete chart reviews to determine common factors, barriers and inequities that are potentially a root cause of greater spread of COVID-19. Community clusters may exacerbate health inequities, and may be caused by socio-economic disadvantages due to a myriad of challenges, such as accessing health care. Clusters are more likely to occur and more difficult to control in settings where individuals are unable to take personal protective measures (e.g.: physical distancing) and where there are healthcare access barriers due to language, racialization, poverty and lack of trust in authority/government or alternatively lack of confidence that institutions are not responsive to their concerns and realities. Cluster response may require the involvement of various community partners and very importantly, in circumstances where community clusters coincide with sites with large proportions of immigrants and racialized populations, cluster response requires an authentic community engagement with response strategies defined with the input of knowledgeable and well-connected community representatives.
The NCRT includes staff who have experience as community developers who can work with community partners to develop a plan to help reduce the spread. This team’s focus is to work with the community, build relationships with partners and community members and, thereby, increase the effectiveness of COVID-19 precautions and interventions. This team will also work closely with targeted partners, like the Newcomer Health Centre Navigators, the Human Needs Task Force, and Community Social Services, to facilitate better access to solutions and reduce barriers. Additionally, OPH has established a small pool of resource to engage and reimburse local community leaders as OPH Ambassadors who may be best suited to interpret or contextualize key messages and interventions, to increase their success.
On August 26, the Province released guidance on school outbreak management outlining responsibilities for Public Health Units (PHU), the Ministry of Health (MOH), Ontario Health, Public Health Ontario (PHO), Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development (MLTSD), the Ministry of Education (EDU) and School Administrators and Boards of Education. The guidance also supports child care centers within schools.
According to the provincial guidelines, an outbreak in a school is defined as two or more lab-confirmed people diagnosed with COVID-19 in students and/or staff (or other visitors) in a school with an epidemiological link, within a 14-day period, where at least one person diagnosed with COVID-19 could have reasonably acquired their infection in the school (including transportation and before/after school care).
- Outbreaks will be declared over when at least 14 days has passed with no evidence of ongoing transmission that could reasonably be related to exposures in the school; and no further ill individuals associated with the initial exposed cohorts have tests pending.
- As per provincial guidance, OPH is responsible for:
- Investigating clusters of people diagnosed with COVID-19 associated with school locations, (e.g. school transportation, in-person attendance or work at a physical school location, before/after school programs located at a school, or other facilities shared with the school).
- Determining if an outbreak exists, declaring an outbreak, and declaring when the outbreak is over.
- Providing guidance and recommendations to the school on outbreak control measures in conjunction with advice provided by EDU and MOH.
- Providing recommendations on cohort(s) isolation, and the potential need for full or partial school dismissal based on the scope of an outbreak.
- Providing recommendations on who to test, and when to be tested in alignment with the province’s broader testing strategy; where recommended, facilitate a coordinated approach to testing, in collaboration with Ontario Health, including provision of an investigation or outbreak number.
- Conducting an on-site investigation as part of the outbreak examination, where necessary, in coordination with the school and board of education (BOE), and other relevant stakeholders (e.g., Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development (MLTSD).
- Issuing orders by the medical officer of health or their designate under the Health Protection and Promotion Act (HPPA), if necessary.
- Promoting actions that will assist with keeping COVID-19 transmission in the community low at the community level is key to preventing introduction of the virus into schools. Early detection and responding to outbreak clusters in schools is vital to controlling the transmission of the virus in the community. OPH will follow provincial standards and provide infection prevention and control advice to schools for both in-school and transportation scenarios.
As per normal procedure, when a person diagnosed with COVID-19 is identified, Ottawa Public Health will conduct contact tracing, identify close contacts, and communicate with those directly impacted.
As per the provincial guidance on school outbreak management, Ontario Health is responsible for coordinating local planning among health system partners for testing to ensure the availability of resources, in addition to:
Deploying testing resources and modalities to meet the testing needs identified by the Public Health Unit (PHU).
Collaborating with PHUs, school boards and schools to monitor testing demands and access.
Work with testing centres to optimize sample collection and distribution to reduce turnaround times.
- Together the Champlain COVID-19 Response Committee (CCRC) and Ottawa Public Health (OPH) are implementing the Ontario Ministry of Health’s policies on testing priorities across Ottawa.
- The CCRC continues to staff, operate and manage the Assessment Centre at Brewer Park Arena, the Assessment Centre at the RTGC parking lot on Coventry Road by appointment, and the two (2) COVID-19 Care Clinics (Moodie and Heron locations) through local hospitals. Questions related to the provincial testing strategy can be submitted to the Province through an online form.
OPH continues to meet regularly with school boards to assess, review and provide feedback on reopening plans. A variety of school-focused scenarios have been planned and practiced through tabletop exercises. These exercises helped all stakeholders identify needs and gaps that exist to successfully respond to common scenarios that may occur at a school. OPH staff have walked through initial scenarios, with senior leadership at school boards, of symptomatic individual at school and confirmed person diagnosed with COVID-19 at a school; with more scenarios and tabletop exercises to be completed at the superintendent and CSST nurse level.
OPH has met with and reviewed the reopening plans for Ottawa’s four largest post-secondary institutions (uOttawa, Carleton University, La Cite Collegial, and Algonquin College).
OPH continues to advise schools and boards of education (BOE) on COVID-19 prevention and preparedness for managing people diagnosed with COVID-19, contacts and outbreaks, in conjunction with advice provided through the EDU and MOH.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a rise in stigma and prejudice against those who have the virus, people who are thought to be carriers of the virus based on appearance, and people who are thought to be from areas where the COVID-19 virus originated.
This increased stigma can result in people not wanting to seek testing for COVID-19 or health care if they need it. It can also result in people not wanting to share information about their contacts, and feeling isolated, rejected or even facing violence.
OPH staff are being offered training to ensure our communications work to reduce and dispel stigma regarding COVID-19.
OPH continues to work closely with community stakeholders, along with partners like CHEO, local health teams and community pediatricians, to make the return to school as safe as possible, balancing the risk of COVID-19 transmission with reducing other harms to the well-being of students, families and staff.
Resources for students, families and school boards regarding COVID-19 and the return to school will be updated as new information becomes available.
- Ottawa Public Health: OttawaPublicHealth.ca/Coronavirus
- Ottawa Public Health: Supporting schools during COVID-19
- Ottawa Public Health: COVID-19 Public Health School Safety Plan Checklist
- Ottawa Public Health: Confirmed Positive Student/Staff School Decision Guide
- Ottawa Public Health: Symptomatic Student or Staff at School Decision Guide
- Ministry of Education: Guide to Reopening Ontario’s Schools
- Ministry of Education: Operational guidance: COVID-19 management in schools
- Ministry of Health: School Outbreak Management