Students in Ontario will not be required to get a COVID-19 test even if they’re sent home with symptoms, health officials said Wednesday. 

Instead, families of students who are sent home with potential symptoms are encouraged to consult their primary care provider who can assess the symptoms based on the student’s health history.

“I would think in many cases they would be recommended to get a test, but it will not be mandatory,” one health official said at a Wednesday technical briefing on the province’s new outbreak guidance for schools. Many people who have symptoms will also want to get a test, they added. 

However, students who are a close contact of a confirmed COVID-19 case — such as if they are in the same “cohort” — should get tested and would be required to stay home and self-isolate for 14 days.

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There’s no specific temperature or “black-and-white” list of symptoms that a child would have to exhibit for a teacher to send them home — and parents should screen their children in the morning and keep them home if they’re feeling ill, the health official said. 

If a child is feeling unwell at school, they’ll be isolated in a room where staff are wearing personal protective equipment (PPE). Once home, their primary care provider may advise the student to get a COVID-19 test, or tell them to “wait it out” if the symptoms could be related to a pre-existing health condition. 

If a student is sent home, they’ll only be able to return to school if they’ve been symptom-free for 24 hours. Schools and school boards will be required to keep their websites up-to-date with information on COVID-19 cases.

While some people may see a COVID-19 test as the “be all and end all,” the health official said it represents only a “snapshot in time.” A population with little incidence of COVID-19 could also have tests that are false positives.

The updated guidance comes as students, parents, teachers and staff continue to worry about the health risks of going back to school amid the pandemic. 

“We do expect cases, and potentially outbreaks, in schools,” the official said, adding that they acknowledge the concerns of parents and staff.

“But with the layers of protection, these public health measures … we are minimizing the risk of transmission.”

Teachers, principals expected to monitor students’ health

There are many reasons children might become sick in the fall, Ontario chief medical officer of health Dr. David Williams said a press conference Wednesday.

“Our first thing is to determine, are they ill from COVID or not?” he said, noting that mild COVID-19 symptoms can mimic those of influenza or other respiratory viruses.

He echoed that parents shouldn’t send their child to school if they’re unwell. 

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“If they need to get tested, and if their doctor or other assessment centre feels they need to get tested, they will get tested,” Williams said. “It may be an ear infection. They may have a history of that. So we want to be sensitive to the fact that children don’t always get sick from COVID.”

If the community doesn’t have a high rate of COVID-19 transmission, that may not be the go-to diagnosis; primary care physicians would know if, for example, there were high rates of influenza spreading in the community, he said.

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Officials also emphasized that principals and teachers are accustomed to making judgment calls on a child’s health while they’re at school. 

“The guidance memo will put principals on alert to manage students with symptoms of COVID, in a way that respects the appropriate use of PPE, isolation and being sent home, not on student transportation,” one government official said.

Speaking at the Wednesday press conference, Ontario Premier Doug Ford called the newly released COVID-19 outbreak management programs “robust.”

Parents will also be provided guidance documents, he said. 

“We’re not taking any chances,” Ford said. “Our kids belong in school. They belong in the classroom with the guidance of their dedicated teachers and the benefit of being around kids their own age. And we are prepared to do whatever it takes to protect them.”