Keeping students safe largely depends on preventing the virus from entering schools, say public health officials. That means keeping community transmission of COVID-19 low and adopting strict screening to exclude students and staff from school if they have any symptoms associated with the virus.
And the list of symptoms associated with COVID-19 is extensive, from fever or a new cough to unexplained fatigue or “runny nose or nasal congestion not related to seasonal allergies or other known causes or conditions.”
Yes, that means if a student has a cold they should not go to school.
It will be hard, Etches acknowledged on CBC radio Tuesday as she answered questions about going back to school.
“Normally when going back to school, there would be colds, there would be things and, you know, keep going. But this fall we all need to learn new behaviours of making sure that if we have a cold-like symptom, it’s not COVID.”
Parents are required to screen their children daily using the symptom list from Ottawa Public Health.
The threshold for keeping kids out of school and testing them for the virus is low, says Dr. Nili Kaplan-Myrth.
It’s impossible to distinguish between COVID-19 and other common respiratory symptoms in children without a test, she said.
“People say to me all the time, ‘Oh wellI, I have a sore throat or a sniffle,’ or ‘I’m just congested, but it’s just allergies. This isn’t COVID. I know it’s not COVID.’
“I just look at them, a little bit dumbfounded. How do you know that it’s not COVID?”
Doctors received a memo from Ottawa Public Health advising them that, as children return to school, virtually any symptoms could be a potential COVID diagnosis, said Kaplan-Myrth.
“The mildest symptoms, anything, could be indistinguishable clinically from COVID.”
“If a child has a cough, whether it’s a new or worsening cough, they should be tested. If they have a sore throat, they should be tested. If they have a runny nose or if they are stuffy or congested, they should be tested. If they have any digestive issues, if they have a tummy ache, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, they should be tested.”
The requirement for testing and isolation will place extra stress on parents whose jobs might be endangered if they take time off work to stay home with children.
“That’s where we run into this huge roadblock,” said Kaplan-Myrth Without universal sick days, it will be hard for people who live hand-to-mouth to be honest about symptoms because they can’t afford to stay home, she said.
“If somebody is relying on their income and they don’t have benefits to take off days, and every time somebody in the household has a runny nose you have to keep them at home and you have to be tested, then we are going to see people lying.”
One frustrated mom posted a reply on Twitter to the post by Etches about the need for everyone in a household to stay home if anyone has symptoms.
“If I follow this, I will be homeless,” she posted. “My kids always have colds and allergies. I get paid two sick days a year … how do I pay the bills if I am constantly off for 14 days?
“Also bosses won’t put up with this. Not everyone makes six figures and can just go off work.”
Students may also be sent home from school if a classmate or staff members at school has COVID-19.
As of late Monday night, 193 students and seven staff at five of Ottawa’s French Catholic schools were told to stay home because they may have been exposed to the virus.
Six people “associated with” the schools have tested positive. Four of the schools just opened on Sept. 3 and the other is a secondary school that opens Wednesday.