Ontario parents will not be directly notified regarding specific concerns about COVID-19 in their child’s school until approximately 30 per cent of pupils are absent but they will be able to access data on absentee rates prior to that.

Bureaucrats say that once a principal observes approximately 30 per cent of the student body absent on a given day, that principal could contact the local public health unit and send home a general advisory letter to parents telling them that a high number of students are absent, and reminding them of things such as performing the daily symptom screening on their children.

However, parents who are concerned about the potential spread of COVID-19 will also be able to look up data about the absentee rate in their child’s school, prior to the 30 per cent threshold being reached.

The data will be made available on the provincial website as of Jan. 24 and will, in effect, replace the regular reporting about positive cases in schools that boards have provided throughout the pandemic.

“We will be using the existing systems in place to capture student cases, pivoting it to absenteeism. So the parents at home, the education staff the students themselves will be able to look to see those numbers on a school basis,” Education Minister Stephen Lecce told CP24 on Wednesday afternoon.

The Ford government did not include information about regular absentee reporting in a news release announcing its plans for the resumption of classes earlier on Wednesday, instead focusing on the distribution of rapid tests and N95 masks.

In a statement issued late Wednesday afternoon a spokesperson for the Ministry of Education said that the information will be made available “on a regular basis with more information shared on reporting expectations soon.”

The Ford government previously developed guidance that confirmed families would not be made aware of individual positive cases in their child’s school, and that access to PCR testing would be limited to students presenting significant symptoms while in class.

On Wednesday, health and education officials told reporters in a technical briefing that only after a school hits a 30 per cent absent rate above baseline attendance would the school board, principal and local public health unit consider, but not automatically require them to move back to virtual learning.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore said the 30 per cent absence threshold made sense to him as a clear indicator of widespread COVID-19 activity in a community.

“We do think that that given the variation in reasons for absences, a threshold of 30 per cent would mostly likely reflect community (COVID–19) activity and be a point where we would want to acknowledge that,” he said.

Under the previous guidelines in place in the fall 2021 term, whole schools were tested and sometimes dismissed after only a dozen or so confirmed cases.

This school year, the province will disclose relative absence rates in schools and also publicly report closures, but will not report the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases documented in schools.

Lecce defended the decision to end notifications about infections, saying the availability of rapid antigen tests for parents would “empower” them to make proper decisions about their children attending class.

“If your child seems to have symptoms compatible with COVID-19 you have and the rapid antigen tests you can have that answered very quickly and that empowers the parent to make the decision to keep their child home and to follow the guidelines of monitoring for five days if symptoms are severe,” he said.

To buttress previous efforts to reduce transmission in schools such as providing all staff with respirator masks and ending high-contact sports and indoor music classes, the province is also sending approximately 5.1 million additional rapid antigen tests over the next two weeks to the childcare and public school system.

The shipments will provide every child and staff member in both sectors with two rapid antigen tests to take home.

Officials said the thought is to allow symptomatic school staff and students the option to conduct tests at least 24 hours apart when they are in isolation.

If both tests come back negative, the individual could return to school 24 hours after their symptoms start improving, or 48 hours after any gastrointestinal symptoms begin to improve.

But at the same time, Moore confirmed on Wednesday that the 200,000 take home PCR kits distributed to schools will not be replenished once they run out, noting that the kits were intended as a “bridge” to more widespread rapid antigen test access.

“The PCR tests were pre distributed. We want to use it as a bridge to rapid antigen tests. Because of the turnaround times of PCR we don’t want families having to wait for our five days for a response,” he said. “We want you to have the answer in your home, empowered rapidly so you can interpret it and understand whether your child is at risk for COVID or not. So there will be a transition.”  

Schools and childcare centres will receive 3.9 million tests this week and 1.2 million next week, but school officials said there is no word on when they will able to give the school system more tests, but they are working to procure more.

The province says it could receive up to 119 million rapid antigen tests over the next few weeks, but a great majority of them will be needed in the healthcare system and congregate care settings.

Dr. Moore also suggested that once the school system’s existing supply of approximately 200,000 PCR self-collection test kits is exhausted, they will not be replenished and “there will be a transition” to using only rapid antigen tests in schools.