The Ontario government says parents will only be notified of a potential COVID-19 outbreak when approximately 30 per cent of staff and students in the school are absent but data on absentee rates will be available to the public before that threshold is met.

Students in Ontario will return to in-person classes on Jan. 17 following nearly two weeks of remote learning due to a surge in COVID-19 cases.

When student and staff absenteeism in an individual school reaches approximately 30 per cent from its baseline, it will trigger the principal to notify local health officials, the government said Wednesday.

At that point, a joint letter from the local medical officer of health and the principal would be sent to the school community.

The 30 per cent threshold will not automatically trigger a school closure, but a pivot to remote learning could be considered at that time.

Parents will not be notified of each COVID-19 case or exposure within their child's school.

Parents with concerns about the potential spread of COVID-19 in their child’s school will have access to the school’s absentee rate, prior to the 30 per cent threshold being met. That information was not included in a news release on the subject issued by the government but was clarified by the Ministry of Education Wednesday afternoon.

That data will be made available on the province's website on a regular basis starting Jan. 24, according to a spokesperson for the ministry.

The government said it's important to remember that not all students who are absent from school are away because they have contracted COVID-19.

“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.

ALL STUDENTS GETTING RAPID TESTS

The Ontario government also announced it will give two COVID-19 rapid tests to each student and staff member when in-person learning returns.

The provincial government said it will distribute 3.9 million rapid tests to school boards starting on Monday, which will be provided first to staff in child care and public schools, children in child-care settings, students in public elementary schools, followed by secondary students.

Students and staff members will receive two tests to start and more tests will be provided when the government has the supply. An additional 1.2 million rapid tests are expected to be distributed during the week of Jan. 24.

"That is going to be layer of protection that we didn't have," Education Minister Stephen Lecce told reporters. "That is going to help empower parents with greater certainty to know if they have the virus." 

Those who are symptomatic are being told to take two COVID-19 rapid tests separated by 24 to 48 hours. If the results of those tests are negative, students should continue to isolate until symptoms improve.

Last week, the government updated the symptom screening for COVID-19 to include a runny nose and sore throat. Students and staff are required to self-screen themselves each day before entering the school.

Meanwhile, the government also said ventilation improvement measures have taken place at every school across Ontario. 

In addition, more than 10 million N95 masks have been shipped to education and child-care staff, while four million three-ply masks have been sent to schools for students.

Additional supplies of masks will be distributed on a regular basis, the government said.

When students return to school, high contact sports and some other extra curricular activities will be restricted. 

There will also be cohorting rules during lunchtime and recess, the government says.

According to the government, local public health units and school boards are working to put in place school-based vaccination clinics for students five to 11 years old. 

These clinics will operate before, during and after school hours to make vaccines as convenient as possible for children and families, the government said.

Premier Doug Ford said Wednesday he is "cautious, but optimistic" that Ontario will have a safe return to school starting Monday. 

"We're going to make sure the kids get vaccinated," Ford said while touring a vaccine clinic at Toronto Zoo. "We sent out the permission slips, so parents when you have them, please sign them and get them back."