Public health officials are updating guidance for contact tracing and case management in Manitoba schools as the omicron variant continues to spread across the province.
In a news release, Education Minister Cliff Cullen said "As public health officials study the omicron variant and continue to learn more about it, they advise we need to change how we respond to COVID-19 both in the community and in schools. The changes public health has recommended to case and contact management in schools will ensure continued monitoring of the risk in individual schools as we learn to live with the virus."
Moving forward, schools will no longer provide close contact notification and notification letters on individual cases but will provide reports of absenteeism through their regular notification channels to their school community.
Schools will monitor staff and student absenteeism rates and self-reported COVID-19 cases. In addition, public health will continue to report confirmed cases through the online dashboard and monitor confirmed cases in schools for evidence of increased transmission above levels expected in the community. When there is increased COVID-19 activity based on absenteeism, case counts or operational concerns, public health will investigate and provide recommendations to school officials.
In situations where public health determines increased transmission may be occurring in a school, they may recommend the implementation of a period of rapid antigen testing or other preventive measures in school, such as reducing higher-risk activities. Where transmission continues to increase or where COVID-19 cases are affecting school operations, a seven-day period of remote learning for the class, cohort or school may be recommended by public health.
"The omicron variant isn't going to go away and we need to learn to live with the virus. This means adjusting our mindset from trying to contain the virus to trying to mitigate our risk," said Dr. Brent Roussin, chief provincial public health officer. "Public health officials will also continue to monitor cases in schools and work with schools to track absenteeism rates for staff and students. This will help us target measures like rapid antigen testing programs and remote learning to specific schools as needed, rather than all having measures apply to all schools in a region."
Students or staff who test positive on a PCR test or rapid antigen test, or suspect they have COVID-19, are required to follow public health isolation protocols and are strongly encouraged to notify the school. School staff and students should attend a test site if they have signs and symptoms of COVID-19.
Students and staff who are exposed at school can continue to attend as long as they are asymptomatic. Household close contacts who are exempt from isolation but have a case in their household are encouraged to use rapid tests to monitor for asymptomatic transmission, as household contact remains the highest-risk setting for transmission.
"The benefits of in-person learning can't be understated, from mental and physical health to socialization and supports for families," said Cullen. "Schools have done a tremendous amount of work and have measures in place to help reduce the spread of the virus and protect our children. Schools will continue to work with public health to help mitigate the risk of the virus and keep children where they need to be - in the classroom."
The minister noted the announcement builds on a number of actions and investments to protect students and staff in schools including:
- implementing a rapid testing program for asymptomatic teachers, staff and kindergarten to Grade 12 students at Manitoba schools experiencing high case numbers or high levels of absenteeism;
- expanding rapid testing for symptomatic staff at schools to include vaccinated and unvaccinated staff;
- moving schools to the Restricted (Orange) level on the Pandemic Response System to ensure enhanced cleaning measures are in place and schools are ensuring two metres of physical distancing to the greatest extent possible;
- providing 500,000 rapid tests for students from kindergarten to Grade 6 to test for COVID-19 as they return to school;
- providing $6 million for medical masks that meet Health Canada performance requirements as well as other personal protective equipment;
- offering COVID-19 vaccinations at schools including after-school clinics for students, teachers and community members;
- providing an additional $6.8 million in funding to support over 200 short-term operating improvements related to air purification, including filters, units and systems;
- investing in mental health supports for students and staff; and
- providing $45 million in the Safe Schools Fund to help address COVID-19 related expenditures in schools, of which $30 million has been allocated by school divisions to support learning impacts, mental health and well-being including hiring additional teachers, educational assistants and clinicians.
For more information on COVID-19 and measures in place to address the spread of the virus in schools, visit www.gov.mb.ca/covid19/schools/index.html