Children who only have a runny nose or a sore throat will no longer need to test negative for COVID-19 in order to return to school or daycare but they will still have to stay home for at least 24 hours.

The Ontario government previously said that children exhibiting any of the 17 symptoms listed in its screening questionnaire would have to self-isolate at home for 14 days or test negative for COVID-19 before returning to school or daycare.

The province, however, has now loosened those guidelines amid reports of sustained long lineups at many GTA assessment centres.

It will still require a negative COVID test or an alternate diagnosis from a doctor if a child has developed one of the four symptoms most commonly associated with the disease caused by the novel coronavirus - fever, cough, loss of taste or smell and shortness of breath.

But if they are exhibiting just one symptom that is less associated with COVID-19, such as a runny nose or a headache, they can return after 24 hours so long as their condition is improving.

The province has also removed abdominal pain and pink eye from its symptom list entirely.

“We are changing the policy and clarifying that schools and daycares should not be requiring a negative COVID test (if children have just one symptom); in fact they shouldn’t even be requiring a doctor’s note,” Ontario’s Associate Medical Officer of Health Dr. Barbara Yaffe said during a briefing on Thursday afternoon. “The parent knows the child the best so if the parent has consulted the provider and the child is feeling better they should be able to go back to school.”

The decision to revise the screening guidance for schools and daycares comes after the British Columbia government removed ten symptoms from its list for school-aged children last month, including runny nose, headache and fatigue.

Yaffe said that the Ontario public health officials considered following suit and also removing runny nose from its symptom list but decided to keep it there after learning that 17 per cent of children diagnosed with COVID-19 in Ontario only displayed a runny nose at first.

Health Canada does not include runny nose on its list of 11 symptoms associated with COVID-19.

“We felt that we had to include runny nose; however we know that runny nose is a very common symptom and in the vast, vast majority of cases it is not COVID-19,” Yaffe said. “There is all sorts of other causes. There are other viruses circulating in the community or the kid might have just been outside and got a runny nose. It is still there (on the list) but what we want to look at really is whether it is a significant symptom and whether they have other symptoms as well. If they only have the runny nose and they go home and it gets better and they have no other symptoms then they can go back to school the next day.”

Parents express relief with changes

CP24 spoke with several parents on Thursday who expressed relief with the government’s decision to change its screening procedures, especially around runny noses.

The NDP’s education critic Marit Stiles, however, took issue with the government’s approach in a subsequent statement.

“Parents are getting whiplash from all of the contradictory instructions from the Ford government,” she said. “Parents who spent hours and hours in line this week with their little ones waiting for a test, and those who are home right now with little ones waiting for test results, have a right to be frustrated at the horrible lack of clarity on when kids need a test, and when they should return to school or daycare.”

It should be noted that the revised screening guidance will still require that any child exhibiting more than one of the listed symptoms either test negative for COVID-19 or receive an alternate diagnosis from a doctor before returning to school or daycare.