What are the best practices for testing, tracing, and isolating students and teachers in elementary, secondary and post-secondary school settings for the remainder of the 2021-2022 academic year? Provinces and territories across Canada are taking different approaches.
Given the large number of COVID-19 cases in Canada represented by children and youth, clear guidelines on school testing, tracing, and isolation are critical to preventing outbreaks.
Evidence suggests the risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission in schools largely reflects community risk, and thus school-based mitigation strategies should be adjusted according to community transmission.
Laboratory-based RT-PCR tests are preferred to rapid tests and are required for diagnosis, although rapid antigen tests may be useful tools for screening symptomatic individuals in high COVID-19 risk communities.
At the federal level:
- The Public Health Agency of Canada should outline clearly defined standardized national protocols for contact tracing and isolation in elementary, secondary, and post-secondary school settings.
At the provincial and territorial level:
- For schools in at-risk communities as identified by public health authorities:
- Monitor and evaluate rapid antigen testing programs for SARS-CoV-2 where such programs exist.
- Require RT-PCR testing for all symptomatic staff and students, and close contacts.
- Require self-isolation of unvaccinated close contacts for 10 days and self-monitor for 14 days (even if they are asymptomatic).
- Require self-isolation of individuals with COVID-19 symptoms until they receive a negative test, or for 10 days if they choose not to be tested (or until symptoms resolve, whichever is longer).
- Provide standardized instructions for schools to send to parents/guardians of positive cases and contacts. Provide staff with clear standards on adequate documentation for contact tracing.
- Provide staff with clear instructions for self-isolation and return to work following testing positive and/or identified as a close contact.
At the local and regional levels:
- Provide clear standards for identifying at-risk communities and school divisions to implement risk-based testing, tracing, and isolation measures.
- Reduce barriers to RT-PCR testing for school staff and students where possible (e.g., ensure accessibility in rural areas).