By Shawn Jeffords The Canadian Press
TORONTO – Ontario has released new guidance to parents and educators to help prevent and manage COVID-19 outbreaks in schools, including provisions that will not require ill students to take a test for the virus before returning to class.
Premier Doug Ford announced the new guidance on Wednesday, saying it had been developed by health-care experts to ensure a safe return of students to class next month.
The “playbook” gives instructions on what will happen if there is a COVID-19 outbreak in a school, and how school officials and the local public health unit will work to stop the spread of the illness.
“We have robust plans for schools and school boards so that when a case or an outbreak occurs everyone knows what to do so we can quickly find, isolate and contain the virus,” Ford said.
The new document from the government comes as school boards, teachers’ unions and some parents have expressed anxiety about the province’s reopening plan.
Those groups have called for smaller class sizes to encourage physical distancing at the elementary level. They want to hire more teachers and lease additional space to create new classrooms.
The new guidance does not lower class sizes but maps out what will be done if a student or staff display symptoms or tests positive for the virus, or there is an outbreak at a school.
The guidance also applies to the province’s child care centres and before and after school programs.
The plan emphasizes prevention, with parents asked to screen their children daily for COVID-19 symptoms and keep them home if any are discovered.
Teachers and principals will be asked to isolate any child that develops symptoms at school and send the child home when a parent can pick them up.
An ill child will not be allowed to return home on the school bus.
Public health officials will be given discretion to send entire cohorts of students home from school, or potentially close schools, if they feel that is the best way to manage an outbreak.
Schools will also be required to advise parents of any positive tests while not identifying the student. Schools must set up a COVID-19 advisory section on their websites and also possibly send letters home updating families.
“You will know very quickly if your child has come into contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19,” said Education Minister Stephen Lecce. “Parents, we know you have a tough choice to make. But know that if your child returns to school they will be safe.”
The province, however, will not make COVID-19 testing mandatory for students who have symptoms of the virus. Instead, the guidance says a child must be symptom free for 24 hours before they are allowed to return to school.
“Barriers to return to school, such as requirement of medical notes or proof of negative tests, should be avoided,” the guidance document says.
Ontario’s chief medical officer of health said parents may want their children tested, but ultimately it will be their decision in conjunction with the local health unit.
“Each case is different,” Dr. David Williams said. “Each case needs to be approached separately, respecting privacy, respecting where the situation is with the child and parent at that time.”
The president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association said boards across the province are still trying to absorb the guidance because they weren’t given the materials ahead of their release to the media on Wednesday.
“We’re just pleased to finally get this document because we’ve been hearing from parents and staff alike for the last two or three weeks,” Cathy Abraham said. “For parents, it means the difference between sending your kids to school or not.”
Abraham said what’s clear from her first look at the 21-page document is that boards will be leaning heavily on their local public health units for advice.
“The moment there is a situation where we feel like this is not adequate, we will be working with our public health units and making sure that we keep people safe,” she said.
The association that represents Ontario’s 43,000 doctors said Wednesday that the province’s medical officers of health will work closely with the government and schools to manage and minimize outbreaks and help prevent another “provincewide lockdown”.
“These strategies will not be a ‘one-size fits all’ approach; they will be tailored to the needs of the community,” the Ontario Medical Association said in a statement.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the new guidance doesn’t go far enough.
“Parents have a right to be concerned the protocols released by the Ford government don’t do much to increase testing in the school community, or to actually ensure any staff member can stay home if they may be sick by mandating paid sick days any time they’re needed,” she said in a statement.