As we prepare for the reopening of schools on January 17, 2022, the health, safety and well-being of students and staff continue to be a critical priority for public health.
Throughout the pandemic, strong public health measures along with comprehensive interventions by local public health units have been extremely effective in supporting schools to operate as safely as possible. As a result, schools in Ontario have not been a significant source of transmission, often seeing lower incidence than their surrounding communities.
Public health measures in schools and child care remain extremely robust with limited transmission in these settings. With Omicron spreading at a rapid rate, case and contact management have limited value in stopping the spread. As a result, provincial guidance for testing, case and contact management has shifted to focus on areas where these interventions will have the most value, such as highest risk settings.
This memo outlines key changes to provincial COVID-19 guidance and the role of public health units in supporting schools and child care settings.
Updated Testing and Case and Contact Management Guidance
In response to the evolving situation related to the COVID-19 Omicron variant of concern, the Ministry of Health has provided interim public health guidance on testing and case and contact management, which includes schools and child care settings:
As outlined in these guidance documents, individuals only exposed at school with all public health measures in place are not generally considered high-risk contacts. Public health units (PHUs) can send all school and child care related COVID-19 cases confirmed with a lab-based PCR test to the Provincial Workforce (PWF) for initial management. Further, we do not anticipate that public health units will be dismissing cohorts for public health reasons, and we expect that any dismissals or closures of a school or child care setting will be contingent on operational requirements determined by the school board, school, and/or child care operator.
Updated Approach to Monitoring and Reporting
Given the widespread transmission of the Omicron variant and changes to the provincial testing approach, schools and child care operators will no longer be routinely notifying families of positive cases or if an individual is absent due to symptoms associated with COVID-19.
To support ongoing monitoring and transparency related to COVID-19 impacts on schools, the Ministry of Education will be requiring schools to monitor their own absenteeism rates and report on student and staff absences and school closures daily through the absence reporting tool (ART). If the absenteeism rate in a school rises to a defined level (e.g., 30% above their baseline) school principals will be required to notify their local PHU.
When a PHU receives information from a school principal or child care operator regarding absenteeism, or other required reporting under the Health Protection and Promotion Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. H.7, guidance outlined in the following documents and related protocols and guidelines should be followed:
• Ontario Public Health Standards: Requirements for Programs, Services, and Accountability
• Infectious Diseases Protocol, 2020
• COVID-19 Integrated Testing & Case, Contact and Outbreak Management Interim Guidance: Omicron Surge
Additional Public Health Actions and Supports
When a school or child care setting’s absenteeism rate increases sharply (e.g., 30% above their baseline), it is the expectation that the school board / school / child care provider send a template notification to families/staff in the affected school / child care setting, signed by the local medical officer of health with information on public health measures for students/families to follow (e.g., monitoring of COVID-19 symptoms).
PHUs may also provide additional support to schools and child care settings. This may be operationalized through regular interactions including ongoing provision of IPAC supports, especially for the highest risk schools and child care settings. Additional policies and procedures may be established and implemented to meet local needs.
Recognizing the challenging HHR situation, PHUs are reminded to continue to leverage the provincially-funded School-Focused Nurses Initiative to provide these supports, in addition to: ongoing support for communication and engagement with local school communities; providing support in the development and implementation of COVID-19 health and safety plans; providing sector-specific support for infection prevention and control; and supporting immunization efforts for school communities.
Return to Regular Secondary School Timetabling: Starting in February 2022, all secondary schools will continue to be able to resume a regular timetabling model of 4 courses a day, unless not supported by the local medical officer of health based on local epidemiology.