Public health updates contact tracing and case management guidance for schools

Public health officials on Thursday announced updated guidelines for contact tracing and case management in Manitoba schools as the omicron variant continues to spread across the province.

“As public health officials study the omicron variant and continue to learn more about it, they advise that we need to change how we respond to COVID-19 both in the community and in schools,” said Education Minister Cliff Cullen. “The changes Public Health has recommended for case and contact management in schools will ensure continued monitoring of risk in individual schools as we learn to live with the virus.

Going forward, schools will no longer provide close contact notification and notification letters on individual cases, but will provide absenteeism reports through their regular notification channels to their school community.

Schools will monitor staff and student absenteeism rates and self-reported COVID-19 cases. Additionally, public health will continue to report confirmed cases through the online dashboard and monitor confirmed cases in schools for evidence of increased transmission above expected levels in the community. When there is an increase in COVID-19 activity due to absenteeism, caseloads, or operational issues, Public Health will investigate and provide recommendations to school officials.

In situations where public health determines that increased transmission may be occurring in a school, it may recommend the implementation of a rapid antigen testing period or other preventative measures at school, such as reducing high-risk activities. When transmission continues to increase or when cases of COVID-19 affect the operation of schools, a seven-day remote learning period for the class, cohort or school may be recommended by public health.

“The omicron variant is not going away and we have to learn to live with the virus. It 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 staff and student absenteeism rates. This will help us target measures such as rapid antigen testing programs and remote learning at specific schools as needed, rather than all measures applying to all schools in an area.

Students or staff who test positive for PCR or rapid antigen, or who 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 go to a testing 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. Close household 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 the household contact remains the highest risk setting for transmission.

“The benefits of in-person learning cannot be understated, from mental and physical health to socializing and supporting families,” Cullen said. “Schools have done a tremendous job and put 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 belong – in the classroom.

The minister noted that the announcement builds on a number of actions and investments to protect students and school staff, including:

– implement a rapid screening program for asymptomatic teachers, staff and K-12 students in Manitoba schools experiencing high caseloads or high levels of absenteeism;
– expand rapid testing for symptomatic staff in schools to include vaccinated and unvaccinated staff;
– moving schools to the restricted (orange) level of the pandemic response system to ensure that enhanced cleaning measures are in place and that schools ensure physical distancing of two meters where possible;
– provide 500,000 rapid tests to K-6 students to test for COVID-19 when they return to school;
– provide $6 million for medical masks that meet Health Canada performance requirements and other personal protective equipment;
– offering COVID-19 vaccinations in schools, including after-school clinics for students, teachers and community members;
– providing additional funding of $6.8 million to support more than 200 short-term operational improvements related to air purification, including filters, units and systems;
– investing in mental health supports for students and staff; and
– providing $45 million to the Safe Schools Fund to help address COVID-19-related expenses in schools, of which $30 million has been allocated by school divisions to support school impacts learning, mental health and well-being, including – the hiring of additional teachers, teaching assistants and clinicians.

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