Ontario’s back-to-school plan: No notification to parents about COVID outbreaks in schools until there is 30 per cent absenteeism

Only when absenteeism hits 30 per cent, will Ontario parents be alerted about COVID-19 outbreak in their child's school

When Ontario students return to the classroom on Monday, every kid will get two rapid antigen tests.

“Staff and students will receive two tests each as an initial supply, with over 3.9 million rapid tests shipped to schools ready for Jan. 17,” said Education Minister Stephen Lecce at a news conference on Wednesday.

“We believe so strongly that children need to be in school”

He said the province has strong protections in place, “that are fully supported” by Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore.

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.

As previously announced, the province is providing all staff with N95 masks and ending high-contact sports and indoor music classes. It has also provided an additional 3,000 HEP filter systems to school boards across Ontario.

According to a Ministry of Health document, principals will be required to track absenteeism in schools and will notify local public health units when it reaches 30 per cent, although this doesn’t mean the school will close. Parents would also get a general advisory letter 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.

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. The new protocol could see hundreds of suspected COVID-19 cases at a large public school before parents are notified.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore said 30 per cent is a good threshold.

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

To limit school closures, the province recommends rotating/planned remote days if needed and combining classes and assigning students to different classes where necessary.

Lecce also highlighted new measures to deal with expected staff absences, including a new arrangement that nearly doubles the number of days retired teachers can work, from 50 to 95 and allowing first and second-year teacher candidates to become eligible to help provide temporary staffing at the hardest-hit schools.

Moore was asked about whether COVID-19 vaccinations for students should be made mandatory. The provincial immunization rate for children 5-to-11-years old is at 45 per cent. Moore said there are no plans to make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory at schools. He said the vaccine is new and they want greater experience with it before it is mandated.

On Tuesday, the Simcoe County District School Board said in an email to Barrie 360 that it has enough N95 masks for staff and students and expects to replenish the stock each month. It noted the board has been able to equip all of its schools with high-efficiency ventilation systems from previous COVID-19 funding from the Ministry of Education.

The Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board told Barrie 360 they have enough N95 masks for each staff member, but not enough HEPA filters for all of its occupied classrooms, so it is prioritizing kindergarten, music and special education classrooms.

The updated return to school policy is getting a failing grade in some circles.

The Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF) tweeted that today’s announcement shifts the responsibility onto parents and caregivers to manage and assess the risk to public health under the guise of empowerment.

The Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) said it was taking a cautious measure to the province’s new safety measures.

There wasn’t much love from the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA).

NDP leader Andrea Horwath said what the government laid out wasn’t much of a confidence booster for parents sending their children back to the classroom. Horwath is calling on the government to reduce class sizes and busloads and to renew access to PCR tests.

Liberal leader Steven Del Duca accused the Ford government of failing to safeguard schools during the latest lockdown.

“For weeks, Ontario Liberals have demanded that Doug Ford use this time to improve safety, including universal vaccinations for students and an in-school testing program,” Del Duca said in a statement.