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Schools

Schools are important places for children to learn and connect with others. This page has information on how to lower children’s and staff’s likelihood of getting COVID-19 in these environments.
Last updated - September 24, 2020 at 11:30 AM

B.C. schools return in September with in-class instruction happening at all grade levels.

Although COVID-19 has a low infection rate in children (ages 0 to 19), it is still important that schools follow public health principles like staying home when sick, socializing within learning groups and minimizing physical contact, practicing hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette, and cleaning and disinfecting frequently.
 

BC’s Back to School plan

Translated Materials: Daily Health Check Forms

Report: Impact of suspension of in-class learning


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Below you will find answers to common questions about how things may look different in schools this fall.  

New Public Health Guidance for K-12 Schools was published on September 11, 2020. The FAQ is meant for teachers, school administrators, staff and parents. The FAQ provides public health information on returning to school during the COVID-19 pandemic. Questions and answers are grouped together under key themes. This page will be updated on an on-going basis.

If you have a health-related question about schools not answered here, you can submit your question by emailing admininfo@bccdc.ca. Check this page regularly for updates.

About COVID-19

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness caused by a novel coronavirus. Symptoms may include:

Common symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Loss of sense of smell or taste
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Fatigue
  • Gastrointestinal issues such as diarrhea or vomiting
  • Loss of appetite

Less common symptoms

  • Conjunctivitis (pink eye)
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Abdominal pain
  • Skin rashes or discolouration of fingers or toes
To find the latest information about COVID-19 visit bccdc.ca/covid19. To assess your own symptoms, use the self-assessment tool at bc.thrive.health.
COVID-19 spreads through respiratory droplets when a person with the virus coughs or sneezes, and sometimes when they talk or sing. Respiratory droplets are small liquid particles that may travel about 1-2 metres through the air before settling on a surface. 

The virus is spread when:
  • a droplet comes in contact with a person’s mouth, nose or eyes.
  • a person touches an object or surface with the virus on it, and then touches their mouth, nose, or eyes before washing their hands.
While there is some discussion of COVID-19 staying in the air (by aerosols), there is no evidence of transmission by aerosols in school or other community settings.
COVID-19 is more likely to spread between adults.

Children (aged 0-19) have had a much lower rate of COVID-19 infection than adults in BC. Children who have developed COVID-19 have most likely caught it from adults in their homes. Older children (10-19) are more likely than younger children (0-9) to catch and spread COVID-19 in their homes. 

If they get COVID-19, some children have a higher chance of more serious illness. This includes children under one year of age, those with weakened immune systems and those with pre-existing lung conditions.

School staff with certain underlying medical conditions, weakened immune systems, or those age 65 years or older also have a higher chance of more serious COVID-19 illness.
If this applies to you, or if you live with someone with any of these conditions, you can still attend school. Talk to your health care provider about the risk. They can help you with steps that you should take to lower the risk to yourself and those you live with. 

Talk to your human resource representative about what safety measures are in place in your school. You can also ask them if there are any workplace accommodations available to support discussions with your health care provider. 
Public health guidance provides information on how to keep COVID-19 out of, and stop transmission in schools. This helps maintain a healthy school environment for students, families and staff. 

We all have a part to play in preventing the spread of COVID-19. What we do in our community will have the greatest impact on reducing spread within schools. We can do things like practicing physical distancing, frequent hand hygiene, respiratory etiquette, staying home when sick and wearing a mask when appropriate. However, as long as COVID-19 is in our communities, there may be cases in some schools.

Each family has to decide if in-person learning is the right choice for them. Information about different learning options is available from your local school board. Additional information, including options for online and distributed learning and home-schooling is available from the Ministry of Education
Each family is different. Some families may live with older people or Elders. Other families may visit or depend on them to help with childcare. Families need to think about their own unique situation to decide if and how to be with older people, like grandparents and Elders, in the safest way possible.

If you live with or spend a lot of time with older people or Elders, there are things you can do to lower the chances of getting and spreading the virus. This may include decreasing the number of contacts your family has outside of your household. For example, you can limit contacts to only family members outside of school, work and other commitments. You can also visit outside when the weather is good and keep a 2 metre distance when visiting.

Adults and children are more likely to catch COVID-19 in the community than in schools, based on the rigorous health and safety measures that will be in place.

Public health guidance is based on the best available evidence. Information about the role children, adults and schools play in the spread of COVID-19 is regularly reviewed. The public health guidance will be updated as new information becomes available.

Sickness at school or at home

 

A daily health check helps us keep track of our health and monitor if we develop any COVID-19 symptoms. 


Parents and caregivers need to check their children for symptoms of illness every day before sending them to school. Staff should assess themselves daily for symptoms of illness and encourage students to speak up if they are feeling unwell. Schools should support parents, caregivers and staff to understand the importance of checking themselves/their children for symptoms of illness daily. 

School staff should make sure that any adult entering the school is aware of their responsibility to assess themselves for illness before entering.

An example of a daily health check form is provided in Appendix C of the Public Health Guidance for K-12 School Settings. 

Anyone who feels sick can use the Daily Health Check Example, self-assessment tool bc.thrive.health, call 8-1-1, or consult their health care provider to be assessed. 
Students and staff without symptoms can still go to school even if someone else in their household is sick. They cannot go to school if public health has told them not to. This is the same as for other settings like workplaces and public spaces.

Most people who are sick or have symptoms of illness in B.C. are not sick with COVID-19. So, it is very unlikely the person in their household has COVID-19. 

If someone has been diagnosed with COVID-19, public health will identify close contacts and ask them to stay home and self-isolate

The person who is sick or has symptoms should be assessed by 8-1-1 or a health care provider. Testing is recommended for anyone with cold, influenza or COVID-19-like symptoms, even mild ones. 

 

Use the self-assessment tool at bc.thrive.health, call 8-1-1, or consult a health care provider to assess symptoms and determine if testing is required. 

Parents or caregivers must keep their child at home until they are assessed by a health care provider to rule out COVID-19 and all symptoms have improved.
 
 
If someone has travelled outside of Canada, they must self-isolate for 14 days upon return.

If someone was told by public health or a health care provider that they are a close contact of a COVID-19 case, s
they must stay home for 14 days from when they were in close contact with that person.

Visit the self-isolation page for more information.
A student will be separated, provided a non-medical mask or tissues to cover their coughs or sneezes, and cared for if they become sick at school. Their parents or caregiver will be notified and asked to pick them up as soon as possible. 

Staff will be separated and asked to go home as soon as possible.

In both cases, the spaces they were in will be cleaned and disinfected. 

Schools will follow the guidance on what to do if a student or staff member develops symptoms, found here in Appendix C

Students and staff with seasonal allergies or other COVID-19-like symptoms related to pre-existing conditions don’t need to stay home if their symptoms are normal. 

If they experience any new or unexplained symptoms, they should stay home and contact a health care provider.  

Anyone unsure about the symptoms they are experiencing should stay at home and contact their health care provider, use the self-assessment tool at bc.thrive.health or call 8-1-1 to assess symptoms and determine if testing is required.
Staff and families of students will be contacted if public health believes they may have been exposed to COVID-19 at school, and provided with recommended follow-up steps (noted below). 

Staff and students not exposed may or may not be notified if there is a positive COVID-19 case in a school. This is at the discretion of the school medical health officer.

Only public health can determine if a staff or student may have been exposed.    

Public health will: 
  1. notify anyone who may have been exposed.
  2. provide any follow-up steps like self-isolating or monitoring for symptoms. 
  3. work with school administration to decide if communications to the school community are needed.
If a staff or student in a school is confirmed by public health to have COVID-19, public health will work with the person who is sick or their family, school administration, and any relevant health care providers to determine and support the next steps. 

  1. The first step is telling the person who is sick to self-isolate at home for a minimum of 10 days from when symptoms started. 
  2. Public health will start contact tracing. This means calling people who have been close to the person who is sick for a long enough time (at least 15 minutes).
  3. Public health will determine which family members, teachers, support staff or students have been in close enough contact for a long enough time with the person that they may have been exposed. 
  4. Public health will look at a number of different things such as where the contact happened and how long other staff and students were exposed. This will help to assess the likelihood of others getting sick. 
  5. If contacts are more likely to get sick with COVID-19, they are considered “close contacts”. 
  6. Close contacts will be asked by public health officials to self-isolate and monitor for COVID-19 symptoms for 14 days. 
  7. It is expected that most members of a learning group will not be deemed close contacts, and will only need to monitor for symptoms, not self-isolate.
Family members, teachers, support staff and students who may have been exposed but are determined not to be a “close contact” do not have to self-isolate as they are no more likely to develop COVID-19 than anyone else.
BC is not planning to do routine COVID-19 testing in schools right now. Currently COVID-19 testing is recommended for anyone with cold, flu or COVID-19-like symptoms, even mild ones. If a person has no symptoms, they do not require a test. 

Additional information about BC’s testing strategy is available here.


 

Preventative measures

The main protective layers being used by schools in BC include:
  • Making sure students and staff stay home when they are sick or are required to self-isolate. This will include daily “health checks” for everyone entering the school.
  • More and improved cleaning and disinfection.
  • Having students and staff placed in learning groups.
  • Changing the classroom or learning environment to make the most of the space being used.
  • Ensuring physical distancing can be maintained between learning groups through changes to schedules and other procedures.
  • Regular hand washing or use of hand sanitizers.
  • Use of non-medical masks where a person cannot maintain physical distance outside of their learning group.
Compared to other community settings, schools are considered “controlled environments/setting” because they have:   
  • regular and widespread safety measures in place like daily health checks and illness policies
  • a consistent and limited group of people going in and out of the building
  • an ability to regularly implement effective personal practices like hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette. 
As a controlled environment/setting, all of the protective layers work together to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
 

Learning groups

A learning group is a group of students and staff who stay together during a school quarter, semester or year. The group mostly interacts with each other. 

Examples of learning groups may include:
  • One class of students with their teacher
  • More than one class of students that sometimes join each other in activities (like music or physical education)
  • A group of secondary school students who have the same courses in the same quarter or semester.
Learning group sizes were determined by medical health officers across the province. When deciding on the learning group size they thought about:

  • The age/maturity of children in different school types
  • The type of instruction across the different school types
  • The importance of a close-to-normal learning experience in supporting the health and development of children and youth
  • Class size
  • Contact tracing and testing capacity of public health – the sizes of the groups allow public health agencies to easily track cases through the community.
Organizing students and staff into learning groups helps decrease the number of different interactions and potential exposures to COVID-19.

If someone has COVID-19 in a school, learning groups help limit the potential number of close contacts and decrease the number of exposures.

Learning groups work best to decrease the spread of COVID-19 when they are used together with other layers of protection like physical distancing, regular hand washing, and staying home when sick.

Physical distancing

Physical distancing means keeping 2 metres (6 feet) away from one another. When physical distancing is difficult, the goal should be to decrease the amount of physical contact between people. The highest risk is face-to-face contact, and this should be limited as much as possible.  

Physical distancing is not required at all times for students and staff when they are within their learning groups. This is because other layers of protection both inside and outside of the learning environment will be used to decrease the likelihood of COVID-19 spread.
 
These layers of protection may include: 
  • individuals staying home if they have symptoms, 
  • focusing on individual activities,
  • having regular seating arrangements, 
  • organizing the classroom or learning environment to decrease personal contact, 
  • and going outside whenever possible. 
Physical distancing should be maintained whenever possible when people from different learning groups are interacting with one another.

Schools should focus on how students and staff can move around safely. You do not need to follow every example given, but should consider broadly what your school can do. Here are a few general principles to consider:


Click to enlarge

 
 
Being outside, and on an outdoor playground, is a safe environment for students to play together. Focus more on minimizing physical contact between younger students rather than staying 2 metres apart. 

No cleaning or disinfection is required for playground structures. More information is available here

All students should practice hand hygiene before and after play.
 
Students and staff should walk, ride their bikes or drive to school when possible. Students and staff using public transit or school buses should be encouraged to practice hand hygiene before and after their commute, cough or sneeze into a tissue or their elbow and avoid touching their face. 

Middle and secondary students are required to wear non-medical masks when they are on a school bus. No student should be required to wear a mask if they do not tolerate it. 

Non-medical masks are not recommended for elementary school students due to the increased likelihood they will touch their face and eyes, as well as require assistance to properly put on and take off their mask (requiring increased close personal contact from school staff).

If staff or students are carpooling with people outside of their households, they should try to carpool with the same people each day. Visit the Common Questions page for more information.
 

Hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette

 Regular liquid or foam soap is preferred for hand washing. Antibacterial soap is not required. 

Students and staff should be provided time to wash their hands with soap and water often. This includes when they get to school, before and after going outside, after using the washroom, before and after meal breaks and before and after using common touch items (e.g. computers, gym equipment, etc). Warm and cold water are equally effective at cleaning hands as long as soap is used. It is recommended to use warm water when available as it encourages children to wash their hands for longer and creates more lather from the soap.

If sinks are not available or overcrowding is a concern, students and staff can use a Health Canada approved alcohol-based hand sanitizer. If hands are visibly dirty, alcohol-based hand rub may not be effective. If soap and water aren’t available and hands are visibly dirty, use an alcohol-based hand wipe followed by hand sanitizer. Read labels carefully as certain products cannot be used on infants, children, or by pregnant or breastfeeding staff..

Use enough hand sanitizer to cover the front and back of a person’s hands and between their fingers. Ensure that the hand sanitizer has dried completely before children resume regular activities. Prevent children from putting wet hands in their eyes or mouth. All children under the age of six should be supervised when using hand sanitizer.

If a child accidentally consumes any amount of hand sanitizer, call the BC Poison Control Centre: 1-800-567-8911. 

Yes, it's safe to wash your hands with soap and tap water if you are living in a community with a Boil Water Advisory. However, if you are living under a Do Not Use advisory you should wash your hands with bottled water.

 

Encourage hand washing often. See Appendix D on the Ministry of Health school guidelines for guidance on when to wash hands.


Promote proper and frequent hand hygiene through signs, announcements, in-class lessons and scheduling time. All sinks should be supplied with liquid or foam soap.

If sinks are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. If hands are visibly dirty, wipe your hands with an alcohol-based hand wipe before using hand sanitizer. Otherwise, avoid touching your face or eating any food or beverages until hands can be washed.
Non-medical masks are recommended for all students in middle and secondary school when physical distance cannot be maintained and the person is interacting with people outside of their learning group. This includes on school buses and in some common areas (e.g. cafeterias, hallways, etc.)

Non-medical masks are not recommended for elementary school students because they are more likely to touch their face and eyes, and younger students may need help putting the mask on and taking it off properly, which will require increased close personal contact from school staff. 

Non-medical masks are recommended for school staff in the same areas as middle and secondary school students (noted above), as well as within staff-only spaces when physical distance cannot be maintained, and if they are working in multiple cohorts. Additional information on when staff should wear a non-medical mask is available in the COVID-19 Public Health Guidance for K-12 School Settings

Students and staff should carry a non-medical mask with them for when they are in these situations in a small plastic or paper bag. Parents and staff can teach students how to wear a mask safely and properly.

Wearing a non-medical mask or face covering outside of the situations mentioned above is a personal choice for students and staff. It is important to treat people wearing masks with respect.


Cleaning

Clean and disinfect high touch surfaces twice daily. This includes door knobs, light switches, toilet handles, water fountains, tables, desks, chairs, keyboards and toys.

General cleaning and disinfecting should happen at least once per day. This includes items that only a single student uses, like an individual desk or locker. Find more information on how to clean and disinfect safely here.

If a shared object cannot be disinfected, for example a plush toy, avoid using it for now.

Students can bring personal items from home, including school supplies and water bottles. These can be kept in their personal cubbies, desks, lockers or other personal storage space (e.g. a pencil box). 
 
 
There is no evidence that the COVID-19 virus is transmitted via textbooks, paper or other paper-based products. As such, there is no need to limit the distribution or sharing of books or paper based educational resources to students because of COVID-19.
Yes, it is safe to bring school supplies and personal items to school for individual use. 

It is also safe to bring paper-based school supplies to school for sharing, as there is no evidence the COVID-19 virus is transmitted via textbooks, paper or other paper-based products. 


Yes, it is safe for food to be brought and returned home in re-usable food containers.

 

Activities

Sports, exercise and other lessons should be outdoors when possible. Reduce physical contact as much as possible and play within your learning group. Hand hygiene is encouraged before and after play.

Yes, students can share sports equipment. However, students should wash their hands before and after use.  

 

Singing in groups can be a safe activity but individuals from separate learning groups should stay 2 metres apart. Other hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette principles apply.


Learn more in the Guidance for Music Classes.
 

Mental health

A lot is happening and changing day to day around COVID-19. Coping with uncertainty is challenging. It’s normal to feel worried and overwhelmed.

Children may feel worried and overwhelmed. How they respond to stressful events will depend on their age, personality, level of development, and how they’ve been impacted. Additional information on children’s mental well-being is available here

Adults may also be feeling worried and overwhelmed. It’s important for everyone to look after their mental health and well-being during COVID-19. Additional information, tips and resources for adults are available here

School-specific mental health resources are available from erase, a Government of BC resource focused on building safe and caring school communities. Visit their website for a list of mental health resources for parents and caregivers, students and staff.

 
 

Shared environment

 
Yes, staff can share appliances and other objects. Treat things like microwaves as high touch surfaces. Disinfect them at least twice per day. Always practice hand hygiene before and after handling shared objects.
Existing ventilation in public buildings, including schools, is effective to prevent the spread of COVID-19. There is no increased risk from the use of air conditioning and fans. Opening windows for fresh air is encouraged where possible.

If your school uses an HVAC system, consider operating it throughout the day and night to keep the air moving. Ensure the systems are maintained for optimal normal function. Additional information on general ventilation and air circulation is available from WorkSafe BC








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