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Ontario parents may not be notified of COVID-19 exposure in child's class, document shows

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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 Doug 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.

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.”

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.

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.

The guidance also calls for surveillance testing of students using rapid antigen tests, but only “when supply is available.”

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 infection data from schools.

Dismissals of class cohorts will be up to the individual school or board officials.

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