Ontario parents will only be notified of a potential COVID-19 outbreak at their child’s school when around 30 per cent of the students and staff are absent, the provincial government says.
When absenteeism in a school reaches 30 per cent from it’s baseline, the principal will notify local public health officials.
Then, a joint letter from the local medical officer of health and school administration would be sent to parents.
However, the government said parents will not be contacted about individual cases of COVID-19, or exposure within the school.
The provincial government said, though, that parents will be able to access absenteeism data on the Ontario website.
That data on absentee rates and closures will be made available on Jan. 24, the government said.
But the data on absences may not always be due to COVID-19, provincial officials noted, adding there could be other reasons for missing school such as appointments.
Students and staff are expected to return to the classroom for in-person learning on Jan. 17.
The move comes as testing has become more limited as the province switched gears to reserve PCR testing for more at-risk populations and focus on hospitalization data for COVID. Case counts in Ontario are no longer accurate due to testing limits and widespread transmission of the virus, officials have noted.
However, the government said students and staff will each get two rapid antigen tests to detect COVID-19 when schools reopen.
Some school boards say they will try to notify parents about confirmed COVID cases, others lower absenteeism threshold
Some school boards, such as ones in the Greater Toronto Area, say they will still look at trying to notify parents about COVID-19 cases in classrooms.
The Toronto Catholic District School Board said it remains committed to reopening schools in a safe matter and will do more than the Ministry of Education and Toronto Public Health guidance on reporting data for 30 per cent absenteeism threshold.
“TCDSB is also planning to go beyond this reporting requirement and notify any impacted cohort if someone chooses to disclose a positive COVID RAT (Rapid Antigen Test) or PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) test,” TCDSB spokesperson Shazia Vlahos said in an email to Global News.
Meanwhile, in a post on its website on Thursday, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) said when schools become aware of a PCR or rapid antigen test confirmed case of COVID-19, “directly impacted classes will continue to be informed.”
“As the Ministry of Education has stated that classes will no longer be dismissed as a result of a case of COVID-19, that guidance will no longer be provided by the school,” the site reads.
The school board said instead, parents and students will “review the daily COVID-19 screening tool to determine if they are permitted to return to school.
“While individual classes will continue to be provided with COVID-19 case information, the COVID-19 advisories page on the TDSB website will no longer be update,” the website reads.
TDSB said if absences exceed 30 per cent of the school population, the board will notify Toronto Public Health (TPH).
“We will continue to consult with TPH to determine if a lower threshold is more appropriate,” the site said.
Durham District School Board said they will lower the threshold from 30 per cent absenteeism to 15 per cent in notifying families in addition to collecting available data on COVID-19 cases.
“Following a motion from the DDSB Board of Trustees, we are preparing to share data to the extent it is available, on confirmed and presumed cases of COVID-19 in DDSB schools, including self-reporting of COVID-19 test results,” the memo sent to parents by DDSB’s director of education read.
Dufferin-Peel Catholic School Board said it will “follow the direction of the Ministry of Education on this matter.”
York Catholic District School Board said it is in the midst of planning what may be possible around reporting with the local public health unit.
Other boards did not immediately respond to Global News.
‘Extraordinary steps’ taken to ensure schools safe
In an interview with Global News on Thursday, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce was asked whether students and teachers will be safe returning to school on Monday.
Lecce said the province’s chief medical officer of health “responded with confidence” to the programming in place, adding that it will “reduce the risk in those settings” and “help protect them every step of the way.”
Lecce said “extraordinary steps have been taken,” to provide protections in Ontario schools.
He pointed to the increased access to rapid tests for students and teachers, HEPA filters and the government’s announcement to “enhance access to staffing” by allowing retired teachers to work more days.
“We’ll do whatever is required,” he said.