Back to school: What happens if a student falls ill, or worse, tests positive for COVID?

Kids get sick. There’s no way around that. But as the symptoms of COVID-19 mirror those of the common cold or influenza, it will be a challenge to determine next steps.

“Children and staff who have any symptoms that are consistent with COVID-19, persisting for more than a few hours and for whom the symptom is new and not related to seasonal allergies or pre-existing medical conditions, must stay home from school and should be tested for COVID-19,” said SMDHU Medical Officer of Health Dr. Charles Gardner. “If you have a negative test, and then your symptoms resolve 24 hours after, you can return.”

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Parents will be asked to seek guidance from a health care provider and it may involve a COVID-19 test. Should a test come back positive, the health care provider should provide direction for isolation and an eventual return to school. If the student has siblings, they’re asked to follow the same advice.

The province’s plan as written does not stipulate mandatory testing. Dr. Gardner says steps should still be taken regardless. “If the individual is not tested for COVID-19 and there is not a clear alternative diagnosis, then they will need to self isolate at home for 14 days”

“On occasion, a parent, or guardian, or staff, or visitor may feel there is another explanation for the new symptoms requiring medical assessment rather than a COVID-19 test,” added Garnder. “In that case, they should contact their healthcare provider as usual. If the health care provider makes an alternative diagnosis and determines that the condition is not COVID-19, they may indicate that the individual can return to school when free of symptoms for 24 hours”

“Of course, they need to be symptom-free as well when they return,” he added.

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Medical notes or proof of negative tests should not be required for staff or students to return to school, according to a recommendation from the SMDHU.

If a student starts to feel ill while at school, it is recommended the principal first arrange a pickup for that student, and designate an area for the student to sit in isolation while waiting. The student should wear a mask while waiting, as should any teacher or staff member providing them care. The student may be advised to remain at home for a time.

The SMDHU is advised of every positive case and will notify the school involved. The SMDHU will then determine any transmission risks to others in the school and take additional steps as necessary. This could involve assessing the other students or teachers involved in the ill student’s cohort. All students and staff determined to be at high risk of exposure will be directed to isolate and urged to seek testing.

According to provincial back-to-school guidelines, an outbreak within a school is declared after two positive linked cases within two weeks among students or staff. “That link is important because it’s possible that you could get a situation where you coincidentally have two cases that contracted their infection elsewhere, not in the school,” said Dr. Gardner.

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“We would be following the recommendations from the province about school outbreak management for COVID-19, this includes identifying and excluding the contacts,” continued Garnder, adding those contacts would include cohort members, staff, and those riding the bus.”

Students who are required to remain home due to symptoms of COVID-19 will have access to learning materials provided by their teacher on the learning platform assigned, either Google Classroom or D2L.

Should a student or staff member fall ill outside of school, they are urged to seek medical advice. If a parent were to test positive for COVID-19, it is recommended they and their children remain at home in self-isolation for 14 days before returning to school. The student’s teacher should continue to support learning online for the duration of the isolation.