Schools play a critical role in the wellbeing of children and youth and keeping schools open remains a public health priority.
Across Nova Scotia, public health measures were successful at reducing the spread of COVID-19 and other infectious illnesses in communities during the 2020-21 year.
Controlling transmission of COVID-19 in communities remains key to keeping risk low in schools. We greatly appreciate the efforts of staff, students, families, and partners whose efforts to follow public health guidance made it possible to maintain in-school learning for much of the 2020-2021 year.
As vaccination coverage increases and reopening continues additional restrictions will be removed and public health measures will be further relaxed. This includes within schools. When making recommendations, Public Health considers that restrictions aimed at controlling the COVID-19 pandemic also have unintended consequences. Many of these consequences are negative, including social, psychological, and economic impacts on individuals and families, which can disproportionately affect vulnerable populations.
Public Health remains committed to prioritizing safe and healthy in-school learning while balancing the risks associated with COVID-19 and other infectious illnesses against the unintended consequences associated with public health restrictions and school closures.
- Vaccination is the most effective way to reduce the risk of COVID-19
- Controlling transmission of COVID-19 in communities is key to keeping risk low in schools
- The goal for this school year is for students to have a comprehensive in-school experience
- Going forward, core public health measures including staying home when sick, hand hygiene, and cleaning and disinfecting, should become part of daily operations in schools
- Temporary enhanced public health measures may be introduced for single schools or groups of schools in response to changing epidemiology in schools and/or communities
- School and family notification and contact tracing will continue for individuals who are exposed to COVID-19 in school settings
Before schools reopen, all eligible Nova Scotians aged 12 years and older will have the opportunity to receive two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine. All who can be vaccinated are strongly encouraged to get both doses as soon as possible. Vaccination protects not only the individual, but also protects those around them who cannot be vaccinated, which includes children under 12 years who will not become eligible before school starts.
Transition to Living with COVID-19 in Schools
The goal for this school year is for students to have access to in-school learning with a comprehensive school experience including supports for students, families, and communities. The approach is to transition away from guidance that is specific to COVID-19 to focus on measures that can reduce the spread of many infectious illnesses, including COVID-19.
Guidance for 2021-22 includes embedded core public health measures as well as temporary enhanced public health measures, which may be applied in certain situations such as increasing community transmission of COVID-19 or school outbreaks.
Based on increasing vaccination coverage and low rates of COVID-19 in our province, it is anticipated that the following measures will not be included in the core public health guidance as schools reopen in September:
- Strict cohorting and maintaining distance between cohorts
- Limits on who can enter school settings, including after-hours
- Restrictions on shared use objects (including sensory items, physical education equipment, and manipulatives)
Core Public Health Measures
The following points outline the anticipated core public health measures for the 2021-22 school year. Collectively, these measures comprise the layered approach that reduces the risk of transmission of illnesses, including COVID-19.
Schools should consider how these core principles can be incorporated into daily operations across all school settings including classrooms, common areas, staff rooms and offices, and during transportation.
Special attention should be paid to larger gatherings and higher risk activities.
- Encourage full vaccination for those who are eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccine.
- Support individuals to monitor for symptoms, stay home when sick, and seek testing when indicated.
- Communicate the importance of using the COVID-19 Daily Checklist and following the Preventing COVID-19 Spread in Child and Youth Settings fact sheet.
Utilize available space to spread people out and minimize congestion.
To minimize disruption in the event of an exposure to COVID-19, consider:
- Choose to be outdoors as much as possible if classes mix.
- During indoor assemblies, seat classes together and choose large well-ventilated areas.
- Attention to cleaning and disinfecting, with emphasis on high traffic areas and high touch surfaces.
- Consider where high touch surfaces can be eliminated, such as using no-touch items (e.g., waste receptacles).
- Prioritize use of outdoor spaces and attention to ventilation when indoors.
- Open exterior windows and doors when appropriate.
- Ensure ventilation (HVAC) systems operate properly, are adjusted appropriately, and are routinely maintained.
- Maintain indoor masking in school settings while the province remains in Phase 4 of reopening.
- This applies for all ages where physical distancing cannot be maintained.
- Masks may be removed when eating, drinking, or when engaged in physical activity.
- Consider how to build in opportunities for mask breaks during the day.
- Refer to https://novascotia.ca/coronavirus/masks/ for more information on mask wearing.
- Masking in schools should be revisited once the province enters Phase 5 of reopening.
- Schools should foster an environment where mask-wearing is accepted and normalized for those who choose to wear masks in situations where it is not required.
- Personal protective equipment (PPE), such as eye protection (e.g., face shields), is not required for general use. Some students have specialized healthcare needs with plans that require the use of PPE. Individual planning is recommended for staff working with these students.
- Develop plans for symptomatic individuals in school settings, such as prompt separation from others, monitoring, masking, and hand hygiene while awaiting pickup.
- Maintain enhanced focus on monitoring absenteeism and report absenteeism >10% or higher than expected to Public Health.
- Maintain attendance records to assist with public health contact tracing if needed.
- Communicate the plan for responding to COVID-19 exposures in school settings.
- Public health will continue to do contact tracing in school settings. Students or staff identified as contacts who are fully vaccinated will not be required to isolate unless they have symptoms. This is consistent with the approach used throughout the province.
- Maintain flexibility including capacity to support at-home learning, if required.
Enhanced Public Health Measures
Throughout the 2021-22 school year, public health recommendations will remain responsive to new evidence and/or changing epidemiology in schools and communities.
Temporary enhanced public health measures may be introduced for one or more schools based on assessment of increased risk. For this reason, it is important that schools remain flexible in their planning and communicate to students and families that public health measures may change during the year.
Enhanced public health measures could include:
- revised guidance on screening, testing, and/or when to stay home
- limiting extra-curricular activities, class mixing, and/or non-essential visitors
- reinstating masking if their routine use has been discontinued
Some of these enhanced public health measures were employed in schools last year.