Public school students will only be eligible for free PCR COVID-19 testing if they develop symptoms while at school, a provincial document guiding the return of in-person learning states, and dismissing groups of students or even notifying families after exposures is now a thing of the past.
Released hours before the Ford government confirmed Monday that in-person learning will resume across Ontario on Jan. 17, the seven-page document says use of PCR testing in schools will be “limited” to those showing only the most indicative symptoms of COVID-19 infection.
And the kits will no longer be offered to children exposed to a symptomatic classmate, even if that classmate is confirmed to have COVID-19.
“The use of take-home PCR self-collection kits will only be used in limited circumstances. These kits are to be provided only to symptomatic elementary/secondary students and education staff who become symptomatic while at school,” the new guidance states.
“PCR self-collection kits will not be provided to individuals experiencing single symptoms that only require isolation until the symptom is improving for 24-48 hours (e.g., runny nose), or to entire cohorts/school populations,” the new guidance says.
Parents should not expect notifications for positive cases identified in their child’s classroom, either.
“Given the widespread transmission and inability to test all symptomatic individuals, schools will not be routinely notifying students/pupils in classes with a positive case, or if a child/student or staff is absent due to symptoms associated with COVID-19,” the guidance states.
During the previous term, schools offered PCR self-collection kits to symptomatic children, those exposed to them, and even the entire school population if an outbreak was declared at the school.
This time around, Health Minister Christine Elliott said the fact that “Omicron is widespread” in the community means reporting and disclosing cases in real time would be unrealistic.
“It would be rather difficult to report on a daily basis as to the exact number of students who have Omicron,” Elliott said.
Ontario Health CEO Matt Anderson said that availability of tests for school children may increase as other demands for PCR tests decline due to the narrower testing guidance implemented last month.
"We have seen with the testing guidance changes just in the last few days a reduction in demand on the PCR network that was by design. And as we look at now being able to bring schools back online, we can repurpose that volume and capacity to support the opening of schools," he said.
Elliott and Anderson said Chief Medical Officer Dr. Kieran Moore and Education Minister Stephen Lecce would have more to say about case reporting requirements on Wednesday.
A Ministry of Health official said that every other Canadian province and territory has either stopped reporting cases tied to schools on a macro level, or otherwise reduced the effort put toward contact tracing, exposure notification or other functions in schools.
Previous guidance from the Ministry of Education suggested classes could be collapsed into each other in the case of widespread absence due to illness.
Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca called the decision to not notify families of exposure incidents “absurd.”
“This is something that will actually be scary for parents to hear, that they’re not going to know that their child is sitting beside another child that has tested positive, I just cannot for the life of me figure out that approach.”
He said families will be “flying blind” and “hoping it will work out for the best” when they previously had information upon which to make the decision about whether to send their children to school.
“I think that’s absurd - it’s an admission on the part of Doug Ford that he’s completely failed the people of Ontario.”
London Health Sciences Centre epidemiologist Dr. Ahmed Al-Jaishi said the new guidance does not “even encourage contact tracing.”
“It’s unfortunate and it’s only going to make transmission go higher,” he told CP24.
The new guidance also separates symptoms into two tiers, with anyone at school experiencing fever, trouble breathing, chills or a sudden loss of taste or smell immediately able to obtain a test.
For other symptoms such as runny nose, extreme fatigue, headache or sore throat, two or more symptoms will warrant access to a PCR test.
Generally speaking, anyone with symptoms consistent with those listed above should still assume they have COVID-19, even if no test is available.
Those with symptoms must isolate, though the length of time required for isolation varies in most circumstances based on vaccination status.
Not fully vaccinated people 12 and up must isolate if they show any COVID-19 symptoms for 10 days from the date of symptom onset or the date of a positive test, whichever occurred sooner.
Fully vaccinated pupils 12 and up must isolate upon presentation of any COVID-19 symptoms for five days from symptom onset or positive test, whichever occurred sooner. They can exit isolation 24 hours after their symptoms show signs of improvement.
But among students 11 and younger, there is no differentiation made for isolation purposes based on vaccination status.
All pupils 11 and younger can exit self-isolation after five days, provided their symptoms are improving.
As of Monday, 47 per cent of children age five to 11 had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 3.5 per cent are fully vaccinated.
Al-Jaishi said he could not understand why no distinction is made between vaccinated and unvaccinated children in this age group.
“That honestly does not make sense to me from an epidemiological perspective that they are not distinguishing between those who are vaccinated and who are not.”
He said the lack of distinction may be because so many parents are unwilling to get their children aged five to 11 vaccinated.
“They don’t want to create more friction among parents, and I also think it comes down to politics.”
Siblings, parents and other household members must also self-isolate while the student is isolating.
If a child tests positive for COVID-19 on a rapid antigen test at home, their parent is under no obligation to inform the school or their local public health unit of the result, the document states.
Al-Jaishi said it would be easy for the province to instead encourage parents to call in positive rapid antigen test results.
“Why not just encourage it to be reported, especially to schools or child care. It seems mind-blowing to me.”
He said he plans on sending his son in senior kindergarten back to school on Jan. 17, after he was earlier exposed to COVID-19 in his class in December, simply because he and his partner have no other childcare available.
“When schools return in-person he will likely be exposed again,” Al-Jaishi said.
For its part, Toronto District School Board spokesperson Ryan Bird said they are still determining what they will do in the event of classroom exposures and confirmed COVID-19 cases.
"We’re still discussing how that will be handled when in-person learning resumes next week," Bird told CP24. "At this point, no final decision has been made."
In Durham Region, the Durham District School Board voted to disclose COVID-19 exposure data to parents "to whatever extent possible" when in-person learning resumes.
The guidance also calls for surveillance testing of students using rapid antigen tests, but only “when supply is available.”
In Peel Region, the Peel District School Board referred queries about exposure notifications and testing in schools to Peel Public Health.
A spokesperson there said Peel Public Health would continue to “prioritize outbreak investigations and reporting in high-risk settings in our community as defined and directed by provincial guidance,” which no longer includes public schools.
“Parents should continue to complete the provincial screening daily for any children attending schools in person and keep them home if they are sick or otherwise don’t pass the screening,” spokesperson Ashleigh Hawkins told CP24.
The Ministry of Health said last week it could receive up to 119 million rapid antigen tests in January, but most of them will be required in the healthcare and congregate care sectors.
Earlier guidance issued to school boards by the Ministry of Education stated the province will no longer collect or publish COVID-19 bulk infection data from schools.
Dismissals of class cohorts will be up to the individual school or board officials.
Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Tuesday the removal of disclosure requirements will leave school communities anxious.
“Doug Ford has had a month to add safety measures while kids were out of school – but he didn’t, and now we’re down to the wire,” she said. “In fact, he made it worse by denying testing and scrapping reporting. Parents, teachers and education workers are anxious that they won’t be told when they’ve been exposed to COVID right in their own classroom.”