Ontario Releases New School COVID-19 Guidelines on Self-Isolation, Outbreaks and Cohort Dismissals

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The Ontario government has released fresh guidelines confirming different isolation rules for vaccinated students and staff, whereas also outlining what may happen in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak at a school this fall.

The document, released late Wednesday morning and entitled “COVID-19 Guidance: School Case, Contact and Outbreak Management,” states that persons who are fully vaccinated and asymptomatic are not required to isolate after a high-risk exposure to the virus. As such, they don’t need to be dismissed from school.

In addition, household members who live with a student that has been exposed to the virus don’t need to self-isolate if they are fully vaccinated.

Those who are not fully immunized and were exposed to coronavirus as a high-risk contact must isolate for 10 days. The guidelines testing is recommended on day seven of their isolation period and the isolation should start on the last day of the known exposure.

If a cohort includes students who are not vaccinated, or the immunization coverage is unknown, individual Public Health Units (PHU) can decide to dismiss the cohort entirely.

The region’s school guidance is in alignment with new public health guidelines, entitled “COVID-19 Fully Immunized and Previously Positive Individuals: Case, Contact and Outbreak Management Interim Guidance,” which the media obtained before the region’s release on Wednesday.

These new guidelines coincide with remarks the Chief Medical Officer Dr. Kieran Moore made in July, outlining that staff and students who are fully vaccinated should anticipate minimal interruptions at school if they are exposed to a high-risk contact.

In contrast, Moore said that unvaccinated persons would have to isolate for at least 10 days and offer two negative COVID-19 tests, 7 days a part, before returning to the classroom.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THERE IS AN OUTBREAK?

Ontario defines an outbreak at a school as 2 or more lab-confirmed COVID cases among students, staff, teachers, or visitors at least one of the cases could have reasonably been acquired at the school. This additionally includes child-care settings and before and after school programs.

Household members should not be included in the high-risk contacts linked to the outbreak, unless they had direct contact with the outbreak.

An outbreak can range from a whole school dismissal to a single cohort being asked to isolate. The PHU will determine the severity of the outbreak and measures that need to be taken.

Additional outbreak measures could include daily screening, minimizing interaction between groups, restricting visitors at the school, asking staff not to work at other schools, and asking families, students and staff to avoid close contact with other persons for non-essential reasons.

After two weeks have passed with no further transmission of the virus and no extra symptomatic cases reported by the school, the outbreak can be declared over.

WHEN WILL AN ENTIRE SCHOOL BE DISMISSED?

Ontario is anticipating that the likelihood of a whole school closing due to an outbreak is “exceptionally low in schools with high immunization coverage among students.”

A PHU may choose to dismiss a whole school if there is widespread or rapid spread of the virus at the institution. These circumstances would include if there is an outbreak in more than one group and there are additional cases that are reasonably likely to have been acquired at school.

During a school-wide dismissal, students and staff who aren’t fully protected from the virus or previously tested positive are advised to stay home, except for essential reasons.

While the document states that instead of a whole school closing, “dismissal of a smaller number of specific contacts who are not fully immunized or previously positive may be sufficient.”

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